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Opinion Canadian energy won’t save Europe from Russia

An oil drum at a grand opening event for the Suncor Energy Fort Hills oil-sands extraction site near Fort McKay, Alberta, in 2018. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg News)
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“The world needs more Canada.”

The phrase began life as a bookstore slogan, but has since evolved into the foreign policy mantra of a certain sort of Canadian.

“We’re Canadian, and we’re here to help,” was how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it in his 2016 address to the United Nations.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the shake-up of the world order that it has provoked, Canadians inclined to view their country as the world’s answer to everything have emphasized one particular helping hand they’re eager to extend: oil and gas.

European nations import around a quarter of their oil and about 40 percent of their natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These Russian industries accordingly remain among the few the Europeans have not sanctioned into oblivion. The balance of damage to the Kremlin vs. Europe is simply not in the continents favor.

But perhaps it someday could be, if a certain energy-rich nation volunteered to soften the blow.

That suggestion has been echoing across the Canadian media lately.

“Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, which in the absence of regime change in Moscow it must lessen, is an opportunity for Canada,” declared the Globe and Mail editorial board. Canada’s “abundant energy reserves could one day allow us to provide for the energy needs of our allies and cut Moscow off from a crucial source of funding for its war machine,” agreed the editorial board of the National Post. “Pressure to curtail Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas will embolden those calling for more Canadian exports,” observed the Toronto Star. Canada “would be giving other nations a reliable alternative to being forced to buy them from corrupt oligarchs like Putin,” nodded the Toronto Sun.

Canada’s daily crude oil output has nearly doubled since 2005, thanks to the exploitation of the Alberta oil sands, which accelerated dramatically in the late 2000s. Enormous reserves of natural gas have been similarly exploited in Alberta and British Columbia in recent decades, making Canada the world’s fifth-largest producer of the versatile energy source.

Yet this abundance has also resulted in a bit of a “to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” mind-set among Canadian elites, in which the country’s large oil and gas supply is perceived as being more useful, both economically and geo-strategically, than it might actually be.

In this case, Europe’s uncomfortable dependence on Russian oil and Russian gas should be understood as two distinct issues.

Oil and petroleum products, which Europeans use primarily to power their cars, have been broad villains for a while now, associated not only with the Putin regime but climate change and repulsive foreign policy more generally (remember “No Blood for Oil”?). Europe’s political establishment has accordingly made significant plans to transition away from this increasingly taboo resource. A new E.U. goal of disinvesting from Russian energy by 2027 has been interpreted less as an opening to diversify the continent’s oil supply than a pretext to just move away from oil altogether — perhaps by banning combustion engines by 2035.

In any case, Russia supplies Europe with 3 million barrels of oil a day. Canada’s entire production is estimated to hit nearly 6 million barrels a day this year, but most of will be sold to the United States. Unless Canada wants to abruptly reroute its supply to a new overseas market, the country would have to increase its output at levels not even the oil industry itself considers plausible to fill the Russian gap. And that’s without factoring in Canada’s extraordinarily limited capacity to even ship oil overseas at all.

Canada’s natural gas situation should provoke more optimism, given that the Europeans don’t seem to have as well developed a strategy to phase out gas. Hydrogen power is the most promising alternative and might someday even take over Europe’s existing natural gas infrastructure, but in the short term, diversification of imports will be needed.

Yet here, too, Canada is hampered by a limit of export capacity. Despite the country’s high rank in global production of natural gas, Canada still has basically no facilities capable of shipping it overseas — the sort of thing the country is really going to need to get cracking on if it ever hopes to offset the 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas the Russians piped to Europe in 2021.

The idea of Canada saving Europe with its energy bounty is a romantic one, affirming the sort of grand, global role many Canadians assume their country is destined to play. It feels decidedly less glamorous to simply be one more generic Western power sending weapons and money to the Ukrainians, or helping Americans fill the energy hole their own boycotts of Russian oil and gas have created. Yet this is what truly benevolent foreign policy looks like: delivering what the world actually needs, rather than what you wish it wanted more of.

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