Let's Face it: Our Oil Dependency Ain't Gonna Go Away Soon

11/25/2011 04:45 EST | Updated 01/25/2012 05:12 EST

While the anti-oil sands lobby promises that the zero-carbon economy is just around the corner, the people who the government actually employs as educated, realistic experts in matters of energy aren't so sure.

The National Energy Board, the government's watchdog agency, issued a report this week projecting the state of energy consumption in Canada in 20 years. And guess what? Oil isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

"Canada is expected to produce six million barrels of oil per day in 2035, double last year's rates. Of that, 85 per cent will be from the northern Alberta oilsands, compared to 54 per cent in 2010," reports the Winnipeg Free Press. "Oilsands bitumen production is set to reach 5.1 million barrels per day 24 years from now, triple last year's levels."

Why? Because despite all the good intentions, guilt, government regulations, funding and pressure to bring more alternative fuels online, they will, in two decades, have taken up an only slightly larger share of the energy mix. The Winnipeg Free Press reports:

• "The share of biofuels used by the transportation sector is expected to triple to 3.3 per cent because of government policies to promote the use of cleaner-burning fuels."

• "The share of electrical generation with renewable power sources is set to rise from 62 per cent in 2010 to 68 per cent."

• "The share of wind in the energy mix is set to grow from one per cent to six per cent between 2010 and 2035, while geothermal, biomass and solar are predicted to grow from two per cent to six per cent over that period."

This is the point the anti-oil sands lobby misses -- or conveniently ignores -- when they indulge in fantasies about ending our reliance on fossil fuels. Expanding wind power by 600 per cent over the next 20 years is an absolutely immense achievement. And still, we'll see it comprise only a paltry six per cent of electricity generation.

Biofuels like ethanol -- which are arguably just as carbon-intensive as fossil fuels, and force us into the ethical quandary of burning food grains for fuel while millions of people go hungry worldwide -- are the only real alternative for vehicles. They are expected to triple in size. That, too, is substantial. Still, that's barely three per cent of the fuel necessary to power North America's cars, jets, trains and ships.

The move towards a carbon-free future is something we all want. The reason it hasn't arrived yet isn't because of a lack of good intentions or of trying. Never before in history have so much interest, effort and resources been poured into achieving conservation and finding alternatives to fossil fuels. And, as the NEB figures show, we are making significant progress. But it's not going to happen today, it's not going to happen tomorrow, and it's not going to happen in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. And until it does happen, we'll need fossil fuels to keep us going. Heck, we'll even need fossil fuels to actually make it happen: the metals, manufacturing and shipping required to produce wind turbines and solar panels are made possible by fossil fuels, too.

Those fossil fuels have got to come from somewhere. By blocking the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would have delivered roughly a million barrels of Canadian oil to Americans every day, the Obama administration has guaranteed that, for the time being, Americans will have to keep relying on oil from unethical regimes that abuse the rights of women, workers and minorities, while using their oil revenues to fund terrorism and war. In Canada, we can do better than that. We can promote oil production here at home -- where the proceeds are used to fund social programs, a foreign policy advancing peace and where our environmental and human rights standards are second to none -- instead of continuing to import oil from Saudi Arabia or other hostile governments. We can continue to work on improving our conservation efforts while ensuring the oil we'll need to keep using in the meantime is as ethical as possible. That's what it means to be responsible. That's what it means to be realistic. That's what it means to be ethical.