Canada’s oil and gas industry is expected to make $147 billion after taxes this year. The profits have been described as “extraordinary”, “record-breaking” and “eye-popping” An even more graphic description came from a Calgary-based financial manager: “This is biblical, what’s happening. Suncor, CNRL, Cenovus — wow. Big, big windfall,” he said. “Imagine a bank machine that’s broken and it’s spitting out $100 bills and there’s not enough people to pick them up and there’s $100 bills gathering on the ground. This is how profitable these businesses are right now.”

Instead of using this windfall for climate solutions, or for a just transition for energy workers and their communities, or to clean up their environmental disaster in the tar sands, the companies are using it to pay down debt and pay larger dividends to shareholders. For example, the third quarter profits of Cenovus Energy, one of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies, were $1.61 billion. The company has used some of its profits to buy back millions of shares, delivering about $2.5 billion to shareholders.

So, I was struck recently by the response from Cenovus to Steven Guilbeault’s suggestion (just a suggestion) that Canada’s oil and gas industry use some of this year’s profits to invest in climate solutions. Citing reports that Canada’s oil industry would be paying about $50 billion in taxes and royalties to federal and provincial governments this year, the company’s CEO, Alex Pourbaix, said “(t)o put this in perspective, our sector’s anticipated government contributions this year are equivalent to more than two-thirds of the funding for all of Canada’s hospitals last year.”

I noted several things in Pourbaix’s comments.  One was his use of “contributions” to describe the taxes and royalties that oil companies pay. From a sector that is continually demanding more in subsidies from government than it actually “contributes” this is rich. Does he think we should be grateful for such largesse?

But more important for me was the comparator that he used. Hospitals. The comparator is certainly a timely and relevant one, given that Canada’s health care system is at a breaking point. In Ontario alone we are faced with:

  • A backlog of surgical and diagnostic procedures – estimated at one million
  • Pediatric Intensive Care Units running over capacity, regular intensive care units at capacity
  • Record-breaking emergency department waits and closures of emergency departments
  • Growing numbers of ambulance code zeros – one or no ambulances are available to respond
  • Children’s surgeries postponed beyond critical time periods, leaving children in chronic pain and risking long-term damage

How interesting, I thought. Pourbaix is linking the oil sector with healthcare. In trying to embellish the sector’s role in society, he has unwittingly pointed to the crux of the problem. Reasons for our crumbling health system range from chronic staff shortages, underfunding of the system, the pandemic and staff burnout, but it is past time for attention to focus on what is making people ill in the first place.  The evidence points to the deadly impact of fossil fuels.

Over the past few years, research has grown telling us that fossil fuels are killing us. This is maybe stating the obvious, given the unfathomable numbers of tragic deaths we’ve witnessed in Canada and around the world from heatwaves, storms, fires and floods, all part of the climate crisis. But more insidious are the diseases and deaths experienced just from the acts of living…of breathing the air, drinking the water.

Air pollution alone, according to Health Canada’s own research, contributes to 15,300 premature deaths in Canada every year. And this is from just three pollutants – fine particulate matter, ground level ozone and nitrogen dioxide, all associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This pollution causes or contributes to a vast – and growing – range of health impacts, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses, heart diseases, cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes and aneurisms, lung cancer, childhood leukemia, dementia, and Parkinson’s Disease.

To give a sense of the impact of these diseases on our health system, look at asthma. In Ontario among people 19 years of age and under in 2016/17, there were 14,015 asthma-specific emergency department visits and 4,215asthma-specific hospitalizations.

The total economic cost of health impacts from just these three pollutants is a staggering $120 billion per year, equivalent to about 6 per cent of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product. This is substantially more than the $50 billion in “contributions” from the oil and gas sector to Canada’s coffers. And it is still more than the $105 billion generated to Canada’s GDP by the oil and gas sector. In simple financial terms, and leaving aside the government subsidies to the industry, as well as incalculable pain and anguish, fossil fuels cost us more than we gain from having a fossil fuels industry. And the impact on health and wellbeing that we could enjoy from having a clean energy economy would be inestimable.

Moya Beall is a SCAN! member. She participates in the Ontario Project and the Pension Divestment Project Working Group.

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