Column: Canada’s dependence on imported fossil fuels reaches a whole new level – Stewart Muir

It’s already well known that eastern Canada has been using a lot of hard-earned foreign exchange to buy crude oil from faraway places like Saudi Arabia, instead of sourcing it from parts of our own country where it is abundant.

Lack of in-country pipelines to facilitate this internal trade is a big part of the situation.

In 2018 alone, according to detailed information I recently requested from Statistics Canada, the value of crude oil imported into the country was nearly $20 billion. Considering that the oil business is one of the most job-rich parts of the economy, this amounts to exporting a lot of high-paying domestic jobs to foreign places.

It’s true there are some complications to the picture that are sometimes lost in the rush judgement, such as the fact even with pipelines to the Atlantic, it would not be simple to replace the lighter grades of oil coming in to Saint John, New Brunswick by tanker.

Complications aside, the inflow is an irritant to those who see made-in-Canada petroleum under sustained attack inside of Canada, including by our own politicians, while imported fuels are able to dodge nearly all of the barriers our own products face. This is what torques the irritation to rage – the fact that the vast majority of our fossil fuel imports fail to meet the same environmental, social or economic standards that beleaguered Canadian energy must.

It turns out that crude oil is not the only fossil fuel product this applies to.

My deeper dive into the statistics looked at the whole category of liquid fossil fuels – crude oil plus a large range of other combustible products – and it reveals that Canada’s import habit now tops $34 billion annually.

That’s just shy of $4 million worth of imported fossil fuels arriving in Canada each hour of every day of the year. The sum doesn’t even include $7 billion of imported petroleum products not used for fuel – lubricants, petrochemical feedstocks, and sundry other non-combustion products.

For already those cranky about our energy dependency on human rights flouters, the rest of the story is predictable enough.

It turns out that 83 per cent of the liquid fossil fuels Canada imported last year ($28.7 billion worth) came from nations ranking below Canada in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals rankings. (We’re currently in 20th place.)

More than four fifths arrived from countries that shun carbon pricing.

And one fifth of these fuels came from countries that don’t even make the top 50 in the Corruption Perceptions Index, which rates Canada as the 9th least corrupt nation out of 175 countries. Nearly $3 billion worth was from nations that failed to crack the Top 100, including Azerbaijan, Russia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Côte d’Ivoire.

As for where all of this fuel comes from, it turns out that just five nations accounted for 84 per cent of the total value. The United States provided 62 per cent of the total, with the overwhelming majority of that trade occurring by land.

Overall, a staggering 79 countries shipped some amount of liquid fuel to Canada, across a broad range of product categories.

The statistics reveal some fascinating relationships and little known facts about who produces and sells what.

Saudi Arabia is a big supplier of our crude imports, ranking in the top five in 2018 along with the U.S., Azerbaijan, Norway and Nigeria.

There is gasoline, with loads of it originating in the United States.

Aviation fuel was shipped in from Korea, Kuwait, Bahrain, Norway, Belgium and Italy.

Unleaded premium gasoline reaches us from Russia, gasoline blending stock from Finland and Estonia, Belarus and The Netherlands, and diesel from China and (believe it or not) Switzerland.

Those are only a few examples.

Meanwhile, barely a week goes by that there is not some new, carefully orchestrated measure, within Canada, that affects Canadian energy products. Institutional, cultural and political minds stand ever ready to step forward and go on the record to share their indignation about the terrible oil sands or untenable fossil fuel infrastructure. Fretting policymakers know an opportunity when they see one and offer the only fix they know – more rules, further regulations and higher costs to hobble the awful Canadian energy industry.

In all this, there is never a word about our large dependence on imported fossil fuels that are lesser than our own by so many measures. What is the point of elaborate measures to lower the overall environmental footprint of domestically produced fuels, when exempted foreign products slide so easily into our supply chain?

It’s not that we have to demand that these imports be replaced with equivalents of domestic manufacture. Maybe, but that’s seldom a rational approach. A starting place is to stop accepting the onslaught of misplaced criticism levelled against Canada’s own products.

Despite the environmental, social and governance underperformance of so many of these countries, in almost every instance they are nations with fewer options and lower development than we Canadians enjoy. They’re trying to make a living whatever way they can. If Canada is willing to engage in trade with them, who can blame them?

A discerning approach will be to ensure that barriers, such as lack of energy pipelines to tidewater, are removed so that as a country we can engage in the same kind of beneficial international trade that is allowing abundant access for others to the Canadian market. This is the most forceful mechanism we have to show our trading partners the advantages of Canadian-stye environmental and social performance. As a practical, effective step toward the low-carbon global economy that is urgently needed today, this is Canada’s most accessible lever and one that we need no longer hesitate to exercise.

Stewart Muir is the executive director of the Resource Works Society, based in Vancouver. 

Data source: Statistics Canada CRO176165_Imports

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