The oil and gas dilemma: Who has skin in the game?

One of the more problematic characteristics of the debate related to oil and gas development in Canada is that those who are dead set against any new investment in the industry (E&P, pipes, etc.) tend to be those who have nothing to lose and those that are deeply committed to developing the industry as long as there is a global demand for the energy have everything to lose.

How do you come to a consensus solution when supporters have everything to lose and opponents have nothing to lose?

Like any debate the issue is not easily reduced to a binary choice.   Supporters of oil and gas development say that disinvestment in the industry will cost all taxpayers in the long run as hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes and royalties will not be raised and will have to be raised elsewhere and opponents of oil and gas development will say the environmental impacts of not shutting down the industry mean they do have something to lose eventually.

But in terms of direct effects, my argument stands.

To put it another way if every strident opponent of the oil and gas industry was going to have to pay $200,000 directly out of their income then their stridency to shut down the industry would at least be backed up with some skin in the game.  Of course, the oil and gas worker would suggest over the next 25 years the cost to them in lost income will be many multiples of the $200,000 but at least both parties would perceive they have something to lose?

So we end up with power politics.  Each side ramping up the rhetoric every more starkly and each side less and less interested in compromise eventually hoping their hard position will win out.

I am on the record and continue to believe that Canada should develop its oil and gas resources as long as their is a demand for the product.  I see no economic or environmental benefit from unilaterally disengaging.  Other countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc. would just ramp up to fill in demand and likely make even more money because Canada took 5% of the world’s supply off the table.

At the same time, I think we should use this time to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint at home and work globally to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.  Of course I am biased – like everyone normally is – as I would like to see a fleet of SMR nuclear reactors deployed around the world to get us completely off coal-fired electricity by 2035 or so.  Right now, many countries are still planning to build new coal-fired electricity plants into the 2030s at least – with a productive life of 50 years or more.

I realize I am becoming a minority view on this.  Most government officials and others in New Brunswick are perfectly contented to import $400-$500 million in natural gas and NGLs every year even as we have a large store right under our feet.  It’s okay to give the economic benefits of that gas to other jurisdictions and to  pay the environmental price of shipping that gas thousands of kilometres to get it here.

In the end, I hope we come to an agreed upon solution that achieves some consensus.   Democracies are messy.  Authoritarian regimes can make decisions a lot easier.  During times of crisis even people in the West tend to gravitate to the strong leader.

But in my opinion big decisions that hurt millions of people and many communities to the bone (those with skin in the game) and have no impact on those who were the most stridently arguing for those decisions – tend to make politics and society more unstable.