500 people from across Canada logged in to hear Linda Solomon Wood‘s conversation with Tzeporah Berman, last night, about the federal government’s big oil bailout! It was the second in a series of National Observer interviews being held over Zoom. Berman gave a message of hope.
The Principals of this Interview
Solomon Wood sat in the dining room where she launched the VANCOUVER OBSERVER in October 2009. The former award winning investigative reporter’s initial readership consisted of ten friends and family members. Now she is the CEO of the Observer Media Group and Editor-in-Chief of the NATIONAL OBSERVER, which has 1.5 million subscribers.
Tzeporah Berman exploded into the public view as a spokesperson for the defence of the Clayoquot rainforest in 1992-93. “Canada’s Queen of Green” is a Co-founder of Forest Ethics (now STAND.earth) and one of the lead negotiators of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. Though recently defamed as an “enemy of the Oilsands, she served on both the BC Government’s Climate Leadership Team and is a former Co-chair of the Oilsands Advisory Working Group. While her primary residence is now Vancouver, Berman has a long association with Cortes Island and will be returning to Hollyhock as a presenter in June 2021.
The COVID Crises
Solomon Wood began, “It was March 21st when Canada closed the border with the United States of America and asked all of us to stay home and social distance. That means that most of us on this call have been in some form of isolation for going on four weeks now. (I hope you are all doing well, staying safe and coping well with the isolation.) As the border closed, restaurants, businesses and other organizations across Canada have shuttered and a million Canadians applied for employment insurance.”
“In the days and weeks that followed, Canada announced a series of initiatives meant to help Canadians … When I look today at the emergency response page, it shows that the government has received 8.68 million applications and paid out $19.8 billion dollars in benefits. This includes temporary income support for people who have lost their jobs because of the COVID crises. I am pretty proud of what Canada has done, but it is also troubling to know that so many people have needed this kind of help.”
Disillusionment With Trudeau Government
In Linda Solomon Wood’s previous interview, David Suzuki expressed the disillusionment that many environmentalists feel with the Trudeau Government. The spirit of optimism born out of Canada’s return to the fight against climate change, at Paris, died in a series of decisions that appeared to put corporate profit ahead of public interest. Suzuki described his disappointment after Trudeau ‘bought a pipeline.’ Others express similar disenchantment in terms of Site C, LNG and, of course, the pipelines.
Tzeporah Berman referred to the Canadian Government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline project as a bad business decision. If the opportunity had been real, the existing pipeline is already sufficient to enable us to cash in on the supposedly lucrative Asian market. Sinking another $10 billion of tax payer dollars into the pipeline expansion project will not change this.
“The business case for the Trans Mountain pipeline was predicated on a $75 to $80 barrel … and does not make sense on a $40 barrel.”
Curtailing Fossil Fuel Emissions
The struggle to curtail fossil fuel emissions is especially crucial in North America, where 85% of the gas and oil sector’s expansion is expected to occur.
“It is in four places: Alberta, British Columbia, Texas and New Mexico. Those operations are all very expensive: they’re fracking, oil sands, oil shale. Those expansions won’t go ahead at very low prices,” says Tzeporah Berman. “ … We were seeing oil and gas companies going bankrupt and performing at the bottom of the S&P Index. That’s because oil demand was already softening in response to climate policies being put in place around the world.”
A Turning Point For Canadian Politics
Berman has also seen attitudes change in Ottawa.
“If you are concerned about climate in Canada, I think what is really clear is that we’ve now seen two examples where our government is listening.”
Her first example is the decision not to go forward with the Teck Frontier Oilsands Project.
“… Tens of thousands [of people] called their MPs, called their cabinet members – and they listened. We heard there was a hard struggle within cabinet on whether to approve or not and Teck knew that. It became a big issue in Canada. A lot of people told me it was a done deal. It was going to be approved, like Trans Mountain, and it wasn’t … Teck pulled out because they knew they weren’t going to get the decision they wanted.”
The COVID Crises
Berman’s second example is how the Canadian Government responded after the COVID crises caused gas and oil prices to plummet. Industry lobbyists worked “directly with members of the federal government to provide recommendations to ensure reliability of energy as an essential service.” A leaked memo, dated March 27, shows the kind of pressure the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was putting on the Canadian government. They asked the Trudeau government to defer, or suspend, reporting on a number of federal policy and regulatory requirements.
Alberta’s Energy Minister said her province’s oil sector needs a $20 billion to $30 billion injection to ‘get to the other side’ of the COVID crises.
“I was really glad to see that [the Trudeau government] did not cave to those incredibly outrageous demands because, quite frankly, we have seen them cave in the past,” said Berman. “I think it is a turning point for politics in Canada where, first of all, we acknowledge the incredible mess that does need to be cleaned up.”
Should Tax Payer Dollars Be Used To Clean Up The Industry’s Mess?
A key component of Trudeau’s relief package is up to $1.7 billion in funding to clean up orphan and/or inactive oil and gas well sites.
Estimates of the actual cost to clean up this situation range between $70 billion and $200 billion.
“Should tax payer dollars be used to clean up the mess that the industry has left behind? Actually no, our regulations, laws and policies should make sure that we are not left in this mess,” says Berman.
There are 6,000 orphan oil wells in Alberta and more in BC and Saskatchewan. “Some of them are decades old; some are months old …. many of them are leaking.” Berman described this situation as largely arising from a corporate decision to “get all the oil out, make the profits, go bankrupt and leave the clean-up for the taxpayers.”
“We have 90,000 inactive wells, they are not orphan yet, they are inactive – but they could become orphan if the companies walked away. If there were time limits on how long wells could remain inactive and if the companies had to post bonds to pay, that would solve the problem.”
In addition to inactive or orphan oil wells, there is also a trillion litres of toxic sludge in tailings ponds. “Many of the chemicals are known cancer causing agents” and “federal studies show that many of these ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River.” This has been linked to the high rate of cancer in downstream indigenous communities.
The Methane Emissions Fund
Trudeau’s relief package includes $750 million for an emissions Reduction Fund, which will primarily focus on methane emissions.
“A lot of this money will go to the companies and that is why it is being criticized. A lot of studies, including the International Energy Agency’s, show that pretty much 50% of the methane reduction can be done at zero cost,” says Berman.
The Polluters Have To Pay
“It is good that we are cleaning up the wells, not just hand billions of dollars to the oil industry ,and getting people to work doing that clean-up and detection but, ultimately, our regulations need to change. The polluters have to pay for the pollution they are creating,” said Berman.
“Industry argues that we all benefit, but the bottom line is that some benefit a lot more than others. While the industry has been crying wolf for a number of years, in 2019 there were massive payouts to the top executives of all the oil companies, especially the big five oil companies. Millions and millions of dollars in payouts and billions in shareholder dividends: this industry has been making profits for a long time. We are increasing production, but decreasing how many people are employed. We are decreasing how much goes to royalties, so back to taxpayers, and increasing how many subsidies the industry gets from tax payers money. Last year over $3 billion went to the oil and gas industry in fossil fuel subsidies.”
“We have this massive disconnect in our country right now. We want to believe that we are climate leaders and have a climate plan, are talking about a national carbon price and are phasing out coal – but we are increasing gas and oil production. The national inventory of Canada’s emissions came out a few days ago. It shows our emissions are going up, not down, and primarily because of two sectors: transportation and oil and gas production. Oil and gas production is now the single largest component of Canada’s emissions and the fastest growing.”
This is not consistent with the nation’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“I heard someone say we are in a zero gravity moment. When we land things will be different. I think it has given us time to reflect on what kind of economy we want in the future. What does recovery look like? Where do we need tax payers dollars to go right now? It’s not to prop up the fossil fuel industry that our own policies say we should be phasing out.”
“Our Governments are listening and they will respond and prioritize, in part the way they think voters are prioritizing. So I think it is really important to make those calls to your MPS, to write letters to the editor, to sign those petitions.”
Scientists are not saying that Canada should stop using oil today, or tomorrow, but we need to plan for the wind down. No new expansion projects should be approved, We need to set targets like zero emissions vehicles and zero emissions buildings, which will help build the new economy.
“It is going to happen by design or default and we are seeing that in the market. If we do it by design, then we can plan for it. I think this message is starting to get through in Ottawa and I think this bailout package was a shot across the bow.”
In the third interview of this series, at 4 PM on Thursday April 22, Linda Solomon Wood interviews Noam Chomsky: Is a new economy possible?