Written by Mark Milke and Lennie Kaplan
You may have heard the narrative—it exists worldwide—that oil and natural gas is dead, or soon will be, and that it can easily be replaced with other forms of energy.
The latter claim is simply false. Read the work of energy transition expert Vaclav Smil, Professor of the Environment (emeritus) at the University of Manitoba. As Smil summarized it in a 2020 paper for the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy, “Designing hypothetical roadmaps outlining complete elimination of fossil carbon from the global energy supply” is “nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking that ignores fundamental physical realities.”
Smil’s empirical approach also leads him to favour less carbon in the world, but the key takeaway from Smil and others suitably informed by “fundamental physical realities” is that oil and natural gas will be around for some time to come. The follow-up takeaway is then merely an open question of which countries will meet the need for oil and gas and in what quantities.
Canada’s track record on oil and gas exports is likely known to many Canadians in general, but not in specific and not relative to other export industries, so here’s a primer.
Between 1988 and 2019, energy exports in total (all forms) were worth nearly $2.5 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars). The oil and gas industry’s share of energy exports were worth over $1.9 trillion.
Now compare that $1.9 trillion in oil and gas exports to other critical export industries in Canada.
Only the exports of motor vehicles and parts were worth more than oil and gas in those decades at nearly $2.8 trillion.
Next in line with 1988-2019 totals were consumer goods at nearly $1.5 trillion; exports of industrial machinery at $992 billion; electronic and electrical equipment at $903 billion; farm, fishing and other food exports at $760 billion; aircraft and other transportation exports at $552 billion; beverage and tobacco products at $547 billion and electricity exports at $207 billion.
Beyond the unsupportable notion that oil and gas can soon be replaced by other forms of energy, there’s another mistaken assumption offered up by some — that oil and gas is an ever-shrinking share of all energy exports. Except that’s not what the data shows.
Between 1988 and 2019 again, the absolute low point for oil and natural gas exports as a proportion of all energy exports was 60 per cent, in 1988. Since then, the percentage of oi and gas relative to all energy exports has mostly been rising. It was 72 per cent in 1995, 79 per cent in 2000, and hit a high of 85 per cent in 2014. In the most recent year for which data is available, as of 2019, oil and gas exports accounted for 82 per cent of all energy exports—still a high proportion relative to most years in the last three decades.
The same pattern plays out when oil and gas exports are matched up as a share of all Canadian exports. Oil and gas exports accounted for just 5.5 per cent of all exports in 1988 and rose steadily over the years to hit a high of 22 per cent in 2014. Oil and gas exports share of all exports dropped to 12.1 per cent in 2016, but then rebounded to 17.2 per cent as of 2019. In fact, in 2019, oil and gas exports were worth over $102 billion to Canada’s economy.
At this point, an objection might be raised when scouring historical data akin to the caveat offered when looking back at stock market investments — past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Except that if Professor Smil is correct, oil and gas will not soon be replaced.
Vis-à-vis the $102 billion in oil and gas exports in 2019, there have been higher value “peaks” for oil and gas exports in the past. Those occurred in 2008 ($121 billion) and 2014 (nearly $124 billion). But whether measured in inflation-adjusted dollar figures, or as a proportion of all energy exports, or a proportion of all exports, it would be a mistake to think Canada can do without the export wealth generated by the oil and natural gas industry.