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Alberta

Notes from Flight 163, the oilsands shuttle from Toronto to Edmonton

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Shared with permission from author Stewart Muir

Stewart Muir is a Victoria-based writer who serves as executive director of the Resource Works Society.

On a recent Monday morning, I found myself on Air Canada Flight 163 from Toronto Pearson to Edmonton. As the plane loaded, I began to sense there was something not so regular about the passengers boarding the Airbus 320 for a regularly scheduled flight.

Unlike those I more typically see on my flights, nobody was in flip-flops or golf wear, or fussing with oversized or unnecessary luggage. This was a mix mostly without the easy-to-spot snowbirds, students, and first-time fliers.

The travellers this day were mostly middle-aged men, fit-looking and dressed Mark’s Work Wearhouse casual. There were some women too, and like the men they moved with familiar ease through the cabin lugging full but neatly packed backpacks or duffels. Many carried a preferred travel distraction in hand, ready for a few hours of Netflix or sudoku. I could hear the distinctive accents of the Maritimes and Quebec, and the more familiar central Canadian English, as they found their places the way transit riders enter a subway car.

It was rapidly apparent that I was witnessing a commuter routine, one not meaningfully different than the suit-filled shuttles carrying day-tripping lawyers, accountants, pharma reps, engineers and lobbyists from the same airport that morning to destinations like Ottawa, Montreal, Boston and New York.

In concentrated form, I was witnessing a typical, daily migration of the Canadian oil sands workforce, probably with some LNG and mining thrown in. They were heading to the workplace. Not for a day, but for stretches of a week or two.

Multiply this by dozens or scores, in airports across the country, usually less starkly evident than on this particular flight, and it was just a regular day in Canadian air travel as the massive energy employee base changed shift.

A few hours later, after we unloaded at the other end, I headed for the exit and my Uber. Not so most of my fellow passengers. They continued on their way to connecting flights – to destinations such as Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, and air services flying direct to some of the big oil sands projects – in time for shift change at the work camps where they were expected.

Statistics could not convey more forcefully than this how the oil & gas economy has a singular and powerful effect on the economy. The large paycheques drawing these men and women to their jobs in the West flowed directly back to their family bank accounts in the GTA and beyond, paying mortgages, grocery bills, taxes and hockey fees.

Flight 163, multiplied many times over, represents what the energy sector, at its most direct and tangible, does for the Canadian economy.

This is what I’m thinking about while surveying a nation that is now deep into an unprecedented social and economic crisis.

Over the coming days and weeks, things that we do will affect how deep and damaging this crisis becomes.

We are seeing Green New Deal advocates pursue the thesis that the coming economic catastrophe is the perfect moment to “transition off fossil fuels”. There are plenty of signs of this thought process – “Hey guess what guys, in one stroke we could meet the Paris Agreement by dropping emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels – not by 2030, but by 2021!”

To put this in perspective, consider that the Conference Board of Canada recently estimated that in one of the milder transition scenarios, meeting such targets will cost Canadians $2.2 trillion and require 14 per less use of residential energy, 47 per cent less car travel, eight times the subway use, and 54 per cent less domestic air travel.

Who’s ready to make this change overnight? We couldn’t do it if we wanted to. Think for just a moment about the costs and tradeoffs required, and the difficulty of accomplishing it in the midst of a global health crisis. Clearly it makes no sense at all. Yet Canada might be the only oil-exporting country where accelerating the transition is likely to receive serious acknowledgment in senior decision-making circles.

Even without such measures, Canada is already moving in the right direction: we are a global leader in clean energy, with 80 per cent of the population living in provinces where more than 90 per cent of electricity is drawn from non-fossil fuel sources. This alone makes us the envy of the world. The prevalence of clean electricity means that wherever it is used in industry, the resulting resource commodity exports can outcompete most other similar products in climate terms, with the bonus that they can allow importing countries to reduce their own emissions.

Mere inattention could do as much damage at this time as a wrong decision. Standing back and watching the domestic oil and gas industry topple will have an effect on citizen wellbeing far in excess of what the collapse of any other industry would bring.

We would be looking at the long-term impairment of Canadian living standards – that is to say a reduction in the value of our jobs, in our quality of life, in our educational opportunities, and in our ability to help other countries while continuing as a net positive influence on the world.

The fossil fuel industry – “it is how we earn our living”

It’s hard to describe how important the energy industry is to Canada. Let me try.

Andy Calitz, the former CEO of LNG Canada who performed the herculean task of achieving a positive final investment decision (FID) for the project before moving on to his next challenge, provided a memorable image when he spoke at a small dinner of diplomats and academics I attended not long after the FID.

When the first shipload of liquefied natural gas departs from Kitimat in a few years’ time, he said, that cargo would be worth $100 million – a staggering sum. (I’ve run this figure past a couple of experienced heads in the energy field, and nobody has scoffed at it.)

In Vancouver, we go giddy each spring at the thought of cruise ship season, which last year saw 290 sailings out of the port. If, as is commonly said, one of those sailings means $1 million injected into the local economy, how does that compare with LNG?

Back of envelope math says that a single year of LNG Canada operations, with its promised traffic of one ship in and one ship out every day, will have the impact of one century of the Vancouver cruise industry. I’m not knocking the cruise industry, it’s important and we need it. But let that comparison sink in.

Here’s another one.

Back in 2017, I calculated that natural gas investments in British Columbia that year were on a scale that equated to building the behemoth Wynn hotel in Las Vegas (4,750 rooms over 215 acres) in the Vancouver area, along with a special SkyTrain extension to serve it. ( Natural gas is back: British Columbia drilling surge is behind $5+ billion in 2017 investment )

Never mind that no investor has ever come forward with such a bold plan for a new resort anywhere in Canada. And it’s actually pretty fortunate that we got the energy infrastructure rather than the casino, given the prospects for tourism in 2020.

Economist Patricia Mohr recently pointed out that Canada is “a trading nation and an ‘energy specialist’ — it is how we earn our living.” Crude oil, all by itself, generated net exports of $62 billion in 2019, up from $57.5 billion in 2018 — far above any other export category.

As Ms. Mohr stated, oil exports come in handy given that we habitually run large deficits in other areas including motor vehicles and parts, machinery, electronic equipment, and consumer goods.

During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s obvious we cannot go without lifesaving medical necessities. Unlike our abundant oil, producing them isn’t a great strength. Canada must import billions’ worth of these goods every year. If you isolate just three medical categories – vaccines, medical apparatus and breathing aids – the numbers show clearly that our own ability to manufacture these items is very limited, even as consumption grows year after year.


The current global crisis has already brought a plummeting Canadian dollar, which in turn makes the imported goods that we rely on more costly. Exports that we can sell for U.S. dollars will offset this, but only if we have products to sell and markets ready to buy them. We need to preserve the ability to produce more as more income is needed, while at the same time figuring in the unfortunate reality that many of the things we export are themselves falling in price, so that higher production volumes are required just to stay in place.

The resource economy actually turns out – despite its detractors – to be both flexible and durable as a source of national well-being. Markets for some of the commodities we produce can be expanded at will, something that cannot be said of iPhones, beach umbrellas or BMWs.

Right now in Russia, the government is starting to realize it might not have been such a good idea to enter into an oil price war with Saudi Arabia. More and more evidence suggests that for a winner to emerge will require not months but years of effort, and at the end of it the United States oil industry, resented deeply by both Russia and Saudi Arabia, could well come on top anyways.

The most chilling observation, as reported today by the Wall Street Journal, comes from Igor Sechin, head of Russia’s largest oil producer, state-controlled giant Rosneft: “If you give up your mar­ket share, you will never get it back.”

There’s a lesson in this for Canada. Those who see an “opportunity” to deliberately give up our oil market share, to encourage a fast pivot into an unknown energy future, are playing recklessly with how we as a country earn our living. If we ratchet down production by letting industry fail, and decide later that it was a mistake to do so, we will not easily be able to retrieve our market share. That’s a frightening thought. Worse still, killing off the industry will make Canadians more dependent on imported oil, which will have to be paid for using a weakened loonie.

Doing what’s necessary

In 2018, the federal government announced an export diversification strategy that would increase Canada’s overseas exports by 50 per cent by 2025. Even before the combined oil/pandemic crisis, it seemed an unlikely ambition.

“Investing in infrastructure to support trade” was one of the ways Ottawa deemed it could aid this ambitious goal, and credit is due for supporting projects such as the so-far-incomplete Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines.

Other forces are holding us back. The Canada Infrastructure Bank, for example, is forbidden from investing its $35 billion of capital in fossil fuel projects, even if those investments could lead to lower energy use and emissions in the oil & gas upstream.

Meanwhile, our national infrastructure minister seems physically incapable of uttering the phrase “energy infrastructure” let alone the p-word (pipelines). Even our minister of natural resources has been placed in the uncomfortable position of carrying out a mandate letter requiring him to making finding alternative employment for oil and gas workers and communities a central task.

Now is the time to save, not strangle, an oil and gas industry that is frantically signalling the need for intervention .

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Quebec lieutenant Pablo Rodriguez yesterday promised Bombardier : “Our government is taking the necessary steps to get you financial help as quickly as possible.” A stock analyst opined that the Canadian and Quebec governments were “likely to offer support if Bombardier gets close to the edge.” (See Globe and Mail story .)

If a single company controlled by a wealthy clan, making luxury jets for billionaires, is to be given this treatment, then there should be no hesitation all in backing the industry that convincingly represents the foundational strength of our entire nation.

Trudeau has always found it difficult to make strong gestures of support to the Canadian oil patch. This time, finding it within himself to say those words of support matters more than ever. There is a very serious risk that Canada’s long term prosperity in both an absolute and a relative sense will be impaired by what occurs in the coming hours, days and weeks. Ahead of us, economic success will only come through determination and political commitment to put people and jobs first.

Stewart Muir is a Victoria-based writer who serves as executive director of the Resource Works Society.

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Alberta

Alberta adds 700 enforcers to stop COVID-19 rule-breakers as hospitalizations climb

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CALGARY — Alberta is giving 700 more peace officers the power to enforce COVID-19 restrictions as hospitalizations for the virus continue to climb in the province. 

“We are not asking these officers to stop cold their day-to-day priorities or to harass responsible Albertans going about their everyday lives,” Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Friday, as Alberta reported 1,227 new COVID-19 cases and nine more deaths. 

Police officers and health inspectors also have the ability to enforce the rules. 

Federal data shows Alberta has the second-highest infection rate in Canada with 208 cases per 100,000 people. Nunavut, with 209 cases per 100,000, ranks highest. 

Alberta has 405 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 86 in intensive care. A week ago, there were 55 patients in intensive care with COVID-19. 

Postponing surgeries is one of the ways the province is freeing up space to accommodate more people severely ill with the virus. 

New measures came into effect Friday to help blunt the spike in cases. Private indoor social gatherings are banned, capacity limits have been imposed on stores and students between grades 7 and 12 switch to remote learning on Monday. 

Fines for breaking the rules range from $1,000 to $100,000 in extreme cases that make it to court. 

When asked whether there would be crackdowns on anti-mask rallies, Madu said police will make independent decisions. 

“But as minister of justice, my expectation is that those who are in violation of the measures that we have put in place would have to be held accountable.”

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said she is disappointed to hear about Alberta Health Services inspectors being verbally abused. 

“Nobody deserves that, least of all the people who are working to keep all of us safe,” she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

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EDMONTON — A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed was one of the biggest factors.

The research, published earlier this week in Nature’s Scientific Reports, studied animals killed by trains between 1995 and 2018: 59 bears; 27 wolves, coyotes, cougars and lynx; and 560 deer, elk, moose and sheep.

“The top predictor was train speed,” said lead author Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta. “More animals died where trains were travelling faster.

“Next was distance to water, then the (amount of) water near the site and then curvature in the tracks.”

Train speed and track curvature, she said, make it difficult for wildlife to detect trains, while being close to water — particularly a lot of water — hinders their ability to get off the tracks before being hit.

The study builds on a five-year research project funded by Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway from 2010 to 2015 that focused on grizzly bears being struck by trains in the same two parks. It concluded that giving grizzlies better travel paths and sightlines along the railway was the best way to keep them safe.

Cassady St. Clair said she hopes the latest study “will make it possible to identify types and locations for mitigations that will reduce the problems for all wildlife, not just grizzly bears.”

The research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and the ability of wildlife to see trains, especially at curves in tracks near water.

Canadian Pacific noted in a statement Friday that the company has worked with Parks Canada for the last decade to learn more about how wildlife interacts with the railway.

“CP has engaged with Parks Canada and the University of Alberta throughout this program to ensure the mitigation measures CP implemented were based on science,” it said.

The statement didn’t address whether the company would consider reducing train speeds.

Co-author Jesse Whittington, a wildlife ecologist for Banff National Park, said trains are one of the leading causes of death for animals in the two parks.

“The trains (that) travel through Banff and Yoho national parks kill almost 30 animals a year,” said Whittington, who added that animals use rail lines for travel and access to food.

The latest study, he said, helps Parks Canada understand where wildlife are getting killed, why they are getting hit in that location and the time of year when they are most likely to get hit.

“Mortality risk was highest in areas where animals had difficulty detecting trains and where they had difficulty escaping trains,” he said. “Animals had challenges detecting trains where trains were travelling fast and in areas with high curvature.

“Trains can be surprisingly quiet when they are travelling downhill or coming around a corner.”

Whittington gave as an example an adult female grizzly bear killed by a train in September. She was in an area with a steep slope next to the Bow River.

“There were few places for her to get off the tracks.”

The latest study also found that grizzly bears were more likely to be killed in late spring when, Whittington noted, water in the Bow River is often higher. Other carnivores and ungulates were more likely to get hit by trains in the winter.

“When we have deep snows, we’ll often find elk and deer along the tracks.”

Whittington said some of his Parks Canada colleagues have been working to enhance travel routes for animals away from the rail line by creating more trails through the forest. The agency’s fire crews have also been working to create better wildlife habitat throughout the park with prescribed fires.

“We have a lot of thick shrubs and deadfall that has accumulated over the years that makes it difficult for animals to travel across the landscape,” he said. “To date, we’ve cleared over 50 kilometres of wildlife trails throughout Banff — both in areas around these hot spots and in other areas that are pinch points. 

“We’re hopeful that will help.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2020.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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