NDP candidate’s comments raise questions about oil sands development

By Maura Forrest

August 13, 2015

NDP candidate Linda McQuaig caused a stir recently when she said much of the oil sands may need to remain undeveloped if Canada is to meet its climate change targets.

McQuaig told CBC’s Power and Politics that “a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground” during an interview last week.

Her comments have provoked swift reactions across the political spectrum. Harper has accused the NDP of being “consistently against the development of our resources and our economy.”

The Liberals have accused the NDP of being inconsistent, changing their message on key issues. And NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has tried to back away from McQuaig’s statements, telling reporters “We’re in favour of creating markets for our natural resources… but that has to be done sustainably.”

Rhetoric aside, however, McQuaig’s comments raise an important question: How much of the oil sands will actually be developed, particularly under a Liberal or NDP government?

In January 2015, an article published in the journal Nature found that 85 per cent of Canada’s oil reserves cannot be burned if global temperature increase is to remain below two degrees Celsius. The article concluded that production from the oil sands must fall to “negligible” levels after 2020.

But even without taking scientific advice into account, it’s unclear how much of the oil sands will be exploited. With today’s technology, only about 10 per cent of the oil sands reserves are recoverable.

And with declining oil prices, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Some oil sands projects are being put on hold due to financial constraints, and Alberta’s energy sector has lost 25,000 jobs since September.

It also remains to be seen how Mulcair or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would balance oil sands expansion with action on climate change.

Both leaders have promised to implement a national carbon-pricing policy if elected. Trudeau’s policy would see Ottawa set national targets and allow provinces to develop their own plans, while Mulcair favours a cap-and-trade system.

Mulcair has also opposed the controversial Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines that would move bitumen from the oil sands overseas. Though Trudeau is more favourable toward oil sands and pipeline expansion, he has provided few details about how he would strike a balance between development and environmental policy.

In the end, it may well be that much of Canada’s oil sands will stay untouched, as McQuaig suggested. But at the moment, no party leader wants to say it. 



Photo Credit: Suncor Energy