On automation and job loss in the tar sands

Alberta tar sands giant Suncor Energy confirmed it is buying autonomous vehicles from a Japanese manufacturer for its tar sands operations. Suncor plans to make its entire fleet autonomous by the end of the decade.

Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre:

Autonomous trucks have been in use in Australian mining operations for a year or two now. Really, what the industry is doing here is picking the low-hanging fruit. It’s a lot easier to design and operate an autonomous truck on private property like the oil sands than it is on a on a public road. And there are a number of motivations. Computers drive better and more safely and better than humans. Unfortunately, there will be jobs lost. But the work that Suncor has been doing with a prototype for the last couple years has proven to them that they can save money on fuel. They will save money on maintenance costs because there’s less wear and tear. Also, the huge mammoth tires will last longer. At fifty thousand dollars a pop, that’s very important.

Low oil prices have been disastrous for Canadian tar sands workers. Automation announcements by companies like Suncor only underscore the need for clean energy jobs.

This shows two important points about energy in Canada in the late-2010s:

  1. Fossil fuel producers are looking to cut costs or offload them to others so they can keep selling their product. Sometimes, there are genuine benefits to these measures, like improving safety and fuel efficiency, and sometimes real social damage, like job losses.
  2. Take claims of job creation from the fossil fuel industry and their political champions very skeptically. The most likely future for oil and gas in Canada is one with fewer jobs than the present, not more.

The trend for tar sands workers is not a promising one. Robotics, teleoperation, and software are fast improving in ways that promote automation in the fossil fuel industry. The industry also faces continuing cost pressures and growing attention on its underpriced carbon pollution.

So let’s turn attention to building a 100% renewable energy system and better supporting Canada’s many non-fossil based exports.


Alberta earthquakes linked to gas fracking

“We can’t take things out of the earth and expect things not to move”:

In Fox Creek, Alberta, where industry triggered a 4.4 magnitude earthquake, a company fracking in the Duvernay Formation has reported more tremors.

“On May 28, an operator in the Fox Creek area reported two seismic events, of a magnitude 2.2 and 2.1 respectively,” confirmed Ryan Bartlett, a spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator.

“The events were associated with hydraulic fracturing operations,” said Bartlett, “and were reported to the [regulator] as required by Subsurface Order #2,” a new set of regulations to monitor seismicity set up last February.

In addition, a shallow 3.5 magnitude earthquake occurred near Rocky Mountain House in central Alberta where a history of quick and high-volume gas extraction from the Strachan gas pool has triggered swarms of tremors since 1976.

More at The Tyee.

Predicting Vancouver’s population in a warmer world

Vancouver in the anthropocene:

Bill Rees, a retired UBC professor of community and regional planning, calls Metro’s projection that another million people will live here by 2041 “a comedy” given the growing uncertainties and risks facing the world.

“Almost all population projections are meaningless,” says Rees, an ecological economist. “One of the most important things to keep in mind is that they are often very wrong.

“When they talk about adding another million people to this area … it’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be a very different world than the one we’re in today.” […]

[Vancouver] could also get far more would-be migrants as the Earth’s climate changes, he says.

Geological records show that in the past the world’s sea levels have risen several metres in a matter of decades, he says.

“Because of changes that cause an environmental disaster elsewhere, we could be asked to take not a million people but tens of millions of climate refugees,” Rees says. “This is not a prediction but it is a plausible scenario.”


BC LNG is not the dream of the 2090s

A comprehensive new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives challenges the manic LNG export strategy of the BC government.

Aside from offering nowhere near the economic benefits promised by boosters in industry and government, LNG is little better than coal:

From wellhead to final combustion, there are substantial leakages of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Given this, liquefied fracked gas from BC actually has GHG emission rates similar to coal.

Contrary to the notion that BC LNG would be “doing the world a favor” by displacing coal use in Asia, BC LNG exports to China would increase GHG emissions over at least the next fifty years, compared to building state-of-the-art coal plants. Considered on a 100-year basis, burning imported LNG would provide only a marginal improvement compared to best technology coal.



Disastrous flooding follows years of extreme drought in south-central US:

Three people have been confirmed dead after record rainfall across the south-central United States led to flash flooding over the weekend across Texas and Oklahoma.

In Claremore, Oklahoma, a firefighter was killed early Sunday after he was swept away during a water rescue.

Another eight people, including three children, are missing after the Wimberley, Texas vacation house they were staying in was swept away during the flash floods. Three people are also missing in San Marcos, Texas[…]

Texas and Oklahoma both face intensifying drought and flooding, although politicians in both states have denied climate change. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Texas “has yet to formally address climate change preparedness” — one of only 12 states to not have taken any steps toward addressing the impacts of climate change on water resources.


Interview with two Divest Harvard faculty. Full link at The Nation.

Science historian Naomi Oreskes on precedents for fossil fuel divestment:

No historical analogy is ever perfect, but there are aspects of history that can be informative. Apartheid is relevant, because many institutions did divest in those cases, which belies the argument that divestment is inappropriate because it “politicizes” the university. Tobacco is relevant for the same reason—and Harvard divested from tobacco—and also because in many respects the fossil fuel industry has followed the tobacco industry playbook. Slavery is relevant because it addresses the “but we all use fossil fuels argument.” Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.

Atmospheric chemist James Anderson on the Harvard Corporation:

The most effective thing for [Harvard President] Drew Faust to do would be to come out with an op-ed in The New York Times saying, “I was wrong, this is absolutely the crucial thing. This is what universities are for, this is their purpose. They’re for leadership. They’re the only entity with real power in this country that cannot be destroyed by the fossil-fuel industry, and I’m sorry that I didn’t see the importance of the climate connection to the moral imperative to the university’s responsibility. But today I do, and we are divesting.”

We’re not going to get riled up about this. We’re just going to win.

Unions, Pensions and the Low Carbon Economy

The Shareholder Association for Research and Education is hosting a public event on climate change and how cities, trade unions and pension funds can help the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Speakers include:

  • Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
  • Pat Hibbitts, Vice President of Finance and Administration at Simon Fraser University
  • Andrea Reimer, Deputy Mayor of the City of Vancouver
  • Sagarika Chatterjee, Associate Director of Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)

From the organizers:

“[The speakers] will all share their perspectives on the challenge of climate change and the role trade unions, pension plans, city government, business and multilateral institutions can play in building and sustaining a green economy.”

February 26, 2015
SFU Beedie School of Business, Vancouver
Register here.