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Why Canada Needs Both Windmills And Pipelines

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"The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one. We need both to reach our goal."

Prime Minister Trudeau's comment -- spoken just before last March's First Ministers' meeting on climate change -- has echoed through ministers' speeches and media interviews ever since. Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet are walking a fine line between the need to control greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand and the need for energy pipelines on the other.

Some people see a contradiction in this balancing act. The authors of the Leap Manifesto argue that growth in renewable energy technologies mean that there is "no longer an excuse for building new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future."

Yet the truth is that Canadians will continue to rely on fossil fuels even as we develop alternatives. This is not an ideological position to be argued over, but a fact that must be recognized.

There's no doubt that renewable energy is growing like gangbusters. Along with solar, wind is the fastest growing source of new electricity generation in Canada. In the United States, these two renewable energy sources accounted for almost two thirds of new generating capacity last year.

However, with one important exception -- diesel power in rural and remote communities -- oil accounts for a little over one per cent of Canada's electricity supply. Instead, oil dominates transportation, with gasoline, diesel or aviation fuel providing almost all of the energy used to move people and goods around in Canada.

There are many uses for fossil fuels, including oil, where the alternatives are nowhere near as advanced as wind turbines, solar panels or electric cars.

Wind farms and oil pipelines currently serve two very different needs. Electric cars promise to bridge the two markets, reducing emissions for part of Canada's transportation system by getting clean low carbon electricity to charge vehicles. The higher cost and inconvenience of fully electric vehicles is holding back their widespread adaption, but it is possible that they are closing in on iPhone-like success.

Yet even if Elon Musk succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, it will not mean the end of oil. Cars accounted for 21 per cent of transportation energy use in 2013. Electrification of the rest of the sector -- particularly heavy trucks, rail, marine transport and aviation -- is father off the horizon, and for some modes of transportation might never happen. Even if you drive yourselves to the grocery store in your new Tesla, for some time to come the food you buy there will have arrived on an old-fashioned diesel powered truck.

That's the challenge. There are many uses for fossil fuels, including oil, where the alternatives are nowhere near as advanced as wind turbines, solar panels or electric cars.

Wind turbines themselves are an example of how tricky it is to fully move away from fossil fuels. About 100 tons of coal is needed to make the steel that goes into the average wind turbine. Hydrocarbons are used to make concrete, plastics and fiberglass that make up other key components. Diesel is used by ships and trucks to get all those parts to the site of the wind farm.

This is why the idea that we can stop climate change by hampering the transportation of oil is deeply flawed. Stopping pipelines in Canada does not speed up the development of alternatives to oil. It doesn't slow growing oil demand in emerging economies, where most of the growth in energy demand will come from in the future. China and India need petroleum, but don't much care if it comes from Canada or somewhere else. If investment in the oil sector moves away from Canada, greenhouse gases from oil production just moves with it, likely to jurisdictions with fewer environmental safeguards.

This is horrible economic policy, but it doesn't strike me as being particularly good for the climate either.

Moving towards a low carbon economy will take time. Acknowledging this reality by building energy pipelines subject to a rigorous approval process doesn't contradict a commitment to find and deploy alternatives in the meantime. It just shows a commitment to dealing with the world as it currently exists.

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