Energy transition will be difficult in an era of public protests and regulatory hurdles
From carbon capture and hydrogen development to accelerated deployment of wind and solar power and rapid electrification of transportation systems, the federal government has set out an ambitious roadmap to bring Canada to its to reduce emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. , and net zero emissions by 2050.
But overhauling this country’s entire energy infrastructure in a short period of time represents an unprecedented technical challenge that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, experts say.
And the pessimists are quick to point out that Canada does not have a good recent record when it comes to getting ambitious and expensive infrastructure projects across the finish line.
In Alberta in particular — where the ghosts of canceled pipeline projects still haunt the public conscience — some observers believe that this country has lost the political will and the spirit of national unity needed to achieve great things.
“We’ve spent a decade making construction extremely difficult, if not impossible,” said David Yager, an energy analyst, oil services industry executive and Calgary-based consultant.
“Canada’s recent history suggests that these [net-zero] the goals are ambitious, to say the least.”
Canadian energy projects in trouble
Yager points to Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline project, which was canceled by the federal Liberals in 2016.
In 2017, the proposed $15.7 billion Energy East project was canceled by TransCanada after being bogged down by regulatory delays, new environmental criteria and opposition to the line along major sections of the proposed route .
Then, in 2021, TC Energy’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline project was canceled by US President Joe Biden – the culmination of a more than decade-long battle that had pitted the energy industry against environmentalists. opposed to the project.
There are many other high-profile examples of troubled Canadian energy projects, from the Coastal GasLink pipeline — whose construction led to rail blockades across the country by Indigenous opponents of the project and their supporters — to Pacific Northwest LNG, a natural gas proposed liquefied gas terminal in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which was scrapped by Malaysian company Petronas and its partners in 2017, in part due to concerns raised by local indigenous groups about the project’s impact on salmon spawning grounds in the region.
As the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion continues, costs for that project have soared to $21.4 billion after being purchased by the federal government for $4.5 billion in 2018.
Trans Mountain has struggled with increased security costs, route changes to avoid culturally and environmentally sensitive areas, and planning delays related to permitting processes, among other issues.
run into opposition
Opponents of these projects say the cancellations and delays show the need to end the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels and shift to greener energy production.
But it’s not just oil and gas projects that are getting harder to build these days, Yager said. In Ontario, wind farm projects have been canceled because they threaten bat populations.
In Quebec, a proposed hydroelectric line that would have brought clean electricity to Massachusetts was scrapped after residents of tiny Maine refused to allow transmission through their state.
“You can’t even build a cell phone tower without opposition,” Yager said. “Where do you think you could put a new hydroelectric dam these days? Nowhere.”
“All these things will have an imprint”
Experts have suggested that Canada will need to double or even triple the size of its electricity grid by 2050 in order to meet its zero electricity goals.
This would require not only new transmission infrastructure, but inter-provincial cooperation on new regional interconnections to help connect areas with access to clean energy to areas still dependent on coal.
Additionally, the federal government wants to increase Canadian production of critical minerals like copper, aluminum and lithium to support a national supply chain for the electric vehicle industry.
The prospect is daunting, said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“All of these things have a footprint and are going to be a challenge to implement,” he said.
Canada is not the only jurisdiction where large-scale infrastructure projects are increasingly facing regulatory and social license challenges.
It’s a similar story in the United States and Europe, Mabee said, adding that there is a real risk that companies in the clean energy sector will look to the developing world or other jurisdictions where rules aren’t as strict and audiences don’t understand as much about where and how things are built.
He added that he believed it was possible for Canada to advance its net zero emissions goals, but said the government will have to communicate clearly what the vision is – and then have the political will to implement it. .
“The level of effort that will be required will be comparable to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mabee said.
But Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former oil industry executive who served as Alberta’s associate minister of electricity and renewable energy from 2013 to 2014, said she doesn’t think projects carried out on behalf of of the energy transition will face the same type of obstacles that the oil and gas industry has had to face in recent years.
She said that while there are certainly people who oppose large-scale wind and solar farms, some of the largest renewable energy projects in the world are currently flourishing in Alberta and, in general, the regulatory process s went smoothly.
“Very few people are stepping up to try and stop this…people complaining are seen as being against green power, and it’s really not a comfortable space,” Kennedy-Glans said.
She added that she believes even large-scale expropriation of private land for new transmission lines, for example, will face relatively little political and regulatory backlash if carried out in the name of climate change.
“There will be a different level of political will for this to happen,” Kennedy-Glans said. “I think people in affected communities will be upset by this…but it will come down to a question of ‘is it in the public interest and is it the right thing to do? “”