At one booth, an entrepreneur showed off portable, solar-powered generators designed to replace diesel.
At another, an engineer explained how new practices used to clean up inactive coal mines can also be used to create jobs in Alberta's oilpatch while cleaning up abandoned sites.
They were at the Vancouver Convention Centre, where the Canadian government hosted the Clean Energy Ministerial, a summit that brought together around 2,500 government officials, private sector representatives and experts from 25 countries in late May.
One booth in particular stood out at a recent Clean Energy Summit in Vancouver, writes @brennaowen . It was laden with bright red hats, pens and bumper stickers that proclaim “I love Canadian oil” and promote the consumption of fossil fuels.
The logos of some fossil fuel companies were also splashed around the room, with representatives explaining their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
But one booth in particular stood out, laden with bright red hats, pens and bumper stickers that proclaim “I love Canadian oil” and promote the consumption of fossil fuels.
The “I love Canadian oil” souvenirs are a hallmark of Canada's Energy Citizens, an initiative of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the largest group of oilpatch lobbyists in Canada.
Their goals include clearing the way for new fossil fuel development and pipelines that can carry Canadian oil and gas to international markets.
Energy Citizens regularly acts as CAPP's travelling roadshow, setting up at public events, golf tournaments and conferences. They operate like a political action committee, sharing articles and messages on social media that promote pro-oil policies and drum up opposition to stronger environmental regulations and oversight, including Bill C-69, which would overhaul how Ottawa assesses and regulates resource development projects.
And they brought their message to the Clean Energy Ministerial, which was intended to foster international co-operation to propel the adoption of clean energy and transition the world away from fossil fuels and towards a low-carbon economy.
So why was CAPP encouraging more oil production and consumption at a clean energy summit?
“CAPP is here because we're part of the energy mix. Whether you're talking about wind or solar [or] nuclear, oil and gas are still part of the global energy mix and will be for some time,” said Natasha Westover, an engagement and corporate relations advisor with CAPP, who also recruits members of Canada's Energy Citizens in B.C.
“We're also here because we support environmental innovation in a big way. The oilsands and natural gas companies are huge supporters of environmental innovation,” said Westover, pointing to the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) booth, which was set up next to CAPP’s.
COSIA is a consortium of oilsands producers that describes itself as being focused on accountability and environmental performance in the areas of greenhouse gases, land, water and tailings.
“A lot of these smaller, startup clean tech companies couldn't exist, actually, without the work [COSIA members] are doing in the oilsands,” said Westover.
National Observer later pressed Westover about the “I love Canadian oil” stickers and whether it was appropriate to distribute them at a clean energy summit, but she declined to comment further.
Catherine Abreu, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada — a coalition of more than 100 environmental organizations — spoke to National Observer after the conference and said she was disappointed to hear about the oil and gas industry’s message.
“I’ve now heard from a number of people, both Canadians and international delegates, that the primary thing they saw from Canada was a really heavy presence from LNG, nuclear and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. I think there have been pretty significant investments in true clean energy made in recent years,” said Abreu, pointing to government support for remote Indigenous communities transitioning away from diesel power.
But, she said, “our entire presence at the Clean Energy Ministerial, which we were hosting in one of the cleanest cities in the world, was all about fossil fuels.”
Defining 'clean energy'
CAPP wasn’t the only group with a contrarian message at a conference billed by organizers as “addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities in this clean-growth century.”
Delegates were also invited to step into Chevron's virtual reality theatre to experience the company's proposed hydro-powered liquid natural gas plant in Kitimat, B.C., while the Trump administration stirred up controversy with an unusual announcement of its own.
During a panel hosted by Canadian Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Mark Menezes, the U.S. under secretary of energy, announced Washington is increasing exports from a Texas LNG terminal, known as the Freeport LNG project. The U.S. Department of Energy attempted to rebrand this project as a plan to export "molecules of freedom."
“Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy,” Menezes said.
When asked about the “freedom gas,” Sohi said he would not comment on the phrasing of the announcement. But he said both the U.S. and Canada are well-positioned to play a role domestically and globally in reducing emissions by expanding LNG.
“LNG is a way for us to continue to create prosperity in other countries [and], at the same time, play a role in the global fight against climate change by providing a source of energy that allows those countries to phase out coal-fired electricity particularly,” said Sohi, who added that Canada will continue to develop oil and gas in a “responsible, sustainable way.”
A recent analysis by National Observer shows that one LNG project in Kitimat, B.C., would be solely responsible for a multi-million-tonne gap between projected emissions and the reduction targets laid out in the province's climate plan, CleanBC.
The project was proposed by LNG Canada — a joint venture comprised of Shell Canada, Petronas, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and KOGAS — and approved by the B.C. government. It would see fracked gas from wells in northeastern B.C. travel via the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline to the new liquefaction terminal before being shipped to Asia.
Caroline Brouillette, a senior researcher at Équiterre and a youth delegate at the summit, said she wasn't surprised to see oil and gas companies had a seat at the conference table. But she called on the summit's organizers to adopt a clear definition of clean energy.
“I think what surprised me was the intentional lack of definition... To me, that’s a bit weird. Coming to an international conference on clean energy and it seems like everything fits within that huge basket,” including fossil fuels, she said.
Similarly, Abreu said Canada is not having a meaningful conversation about what she called the “inevitable wind-down of Canada’s oil and gas industry.”
“It is true that is not going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “But from my perspective, it’s not a valuable use of resources to figure out how to make the practice that ultimately needs to end marginally cleaner over time.”
Instead, she said, Canada needs to take real steps towards transitioning away from fossil fuels by investing significantly in emerging sectors.
National Observer reached out to the U.S. Department of Energy to ask about its definition of clean energy and sent the request to additional media relations representatives two days later, but did not receive any immediate responses.
Asked whether promoting the expansion of LNG is in line with the emissions reduction demands of climate change, Sean Comey, a senior advisor at Chevron, said in an email, “We recognize the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the use of fossil fuels contributes to increases in global temperatures... It is our view that a decrease in overall fossil fuel emissions is not inconsistent with continued or increased fossil fuel production by the most efficient producers. Our strategy is to be among the most efficient producers.”
Last year, the IPCC reported that there are around 12 years left to prevent catastrophic and irreversible changes to the earth's climate that will arise with warming above 1.5°C. And in April, a report by Environment and Climate Change Canada found Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, particularly in the Arctic.
Rising oil and gas emissions
Oil and gas companies recognize that in order to be successful, they must become more “cost- and carbon-competitive,” Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), told National Observer in a phone interview after the summit.
“I think industry recognizes the need to demonstrate real progress,” MacDonald said. “It’s not a smokescreen… It's a real effort to ensure they continue to be successful in a low carbon economy."
ERA is a non-profit organization that works with oil and gas companies to invest in clean technologies that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising from oilpatch extraction and production. Since 2009, the organization has invested around $572 million in 164 projects. According to MacDonald, oil and gas companies have leveraged ERA funding, adding $7 for every dollar that ERA has invested.
“It’s created four and a half billion dollars worth of total project value,” said MacDonald. “In terms of jobs, that’s huge… the supply chain for the technologies we’re investing in supports all of Canada.”
ERA estimates that collectively, its investments result in GHG emissions reductions of 3.2 million tonnes per year and nearly 43 million tonnes in total by 2030.
“In terms of [Alberta’s] commitment to innovation in technology, we punch far beyond our weight,” said MacDonald, who also said it’s time for conversations around clean energy to move past “vilifying” the industry in conversations about shifts towards a low-carbon economy.
Yet at the current pace of emissions reductions, Canada is set to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement around the year 2230.
And the oil and gas sector is responsible for the lion's share of Canada's rising emissions.
At the Paris climate talks in 2015, Ottawa committed to cutting emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to the government’s recent projections, which use data from 2017, there is a 79 megatonne gap between current climate policies and the Paris target, up from 66 in 2016.
Despite investments in clean technology by oil and gas companies, federal data shows that rising emissions from the oil and gas sector account for 12 megatonnes of the 13-megatonne jump. Ottawa expects production growth in the oilpatch will result in rising emissions until at least 2030.
Sohi cites optimistic stat that wilts under scrutiny
At the closing press conference of the clean energy summit, Sohi pointed to a 30 per cent drop in GHG emissions intensity in Alberta’s oilpatch, which Ottawa measured between 1990 and 2014. Emissions intensity refers to the amount of GHGs produced on average to extract one barrel of heavy, tar-like bitumen. Sohi attributed the drop to the sector's adoption of clean technology.
A 2016 analysis from the Pembina Institute, a Canadian clean energy think-tank that began in Alberta, suggests that while Sohi's numbers are accurate, they are misleading.
The report states: “The oilsands industry did make some significant one-off improvements in emissions intensity about 25 years ago, when it was credited with moving to co-generation and less-carbon-intensive burning fuels. Similarly, improvements at upgrading facilities in the early 2000s allowed intensity to fall by a third, contributing greatly to the 30 per cent decrease in the sector’s overall emissions intensity. ... However, when you take a closer look at the period between the mid-2000s and 2010s, this claim does not reflect recent trends in oilsands performance.”
According to Ottawa's 2018 report on GHG emissions projections, oilpatch emissions intensity increased between 2005 and 2016. The emissions intensity of overall oil production across Canada also increased by 16 per cent between 1990 and 2017.
Extracting bitumen from the oilpatch and refining it into lighter petroleum products is expensive and carbon-intensive, even compared to oil production in other countries.
Canada is home to the world's third-largest proven oil reserves, referring to oil that is recoverable given current technology and economic conditions. Ninety-seven per cent of Canada's oil is found in Alberta's oilpatch. Proven reserves amount to more than 170 million barrels, though according to National Resources Canada, that number could rise to 300 billion as extraction technology improves.
But a report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that 25 per cent of Canada’s potential oil and gas reserves are extractable in order to keep emissions from blowing the carbon budget required to hold global warming below 2°C in this century.
'We're on this rollercoaster of oil prices'
Sohi also made a series of clean energy announcements at the conference, unveiling some new investments as well as stressing that Canada needs to ensure workers aren't left behind during a global energy sector transition.
After the conference, National Observer spoke to Stephen Buhler, a 28-year-old machinist and Edmonton resident, who has worked in the oil and gas industry for a decade. He said in an interview that he would rather manufacture parts for renewable energy. Developing transferable skills is among the reasons why he chose machining to begin with.
“We’re on this roller-coaster of oil prices where prices are up and down, and when they go down they really go down and they take people with them,” said Buhler.
“I’ve had a lot of talks with people who have been working in oil and gas. They know that change is inevitable. They are listening to the science, [it’s] just … there’s never really been an in-road for them to come and take a stand for something that really could be transformative.”
With little prior experience in activism, Buhler began volunteering with the organization Climate Justice Edmonton. In April, the day after the election of the United Conservative Party in Alberta, Buhler helped launch Our Time, a national youth-led campaign for a Canadian Green New Deal.
Popularized by American Democratic Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal calls for science-based policies and investment in jobs, public transit and infrastructure for a carbon-neutral future. According to Our Time, the platform is meant to enshrine dignity and justice for all people — particularly the workers, Indigenous communities and migrants from the Global South who bear the brunt of the planet’s rapidly changing climate.
“The most important thing I can do is inspire other working people to come on board and hopefully create a groundswell of people working in the industry that want to see a better future for ourselves that still keeps us [in] work and avoids any kind of catastrophic climate change,” said Buhler.
Abreu, Climate Action Network Canada’s executive director, said Canadians are being sold a “fairy tale” that the country can continue to expand and rely on fossil fuels for economic growth given the realities of climate change and the high costs associated with oilpatch production.
“In a world that is moving to fulfill the Paris Agreement and take climate change seriously, expensive oil is going to be one of the first things on the chopping block,” she said.
Abreu blamed the so-called fairy tale on industry and also on the Canadian government. She pointed out that CAPP lobbied government decision-makers 139 times between April and December 2018 — an average of once per business day — according to a report by Environmental Defence and Stand.
The report says CAPP was lobbying government officials about Bill C-69, which passed in the Senate last week with more than 180 amendments.
CAPP proposed many of these amendments on the basis that the provisions of the original bill would slow down the approval of new oil and gas projects and jeopardize investments in the sector. Oil Sands Magazine called the passage of the amended bill a "win" for the oilpatch.
The amended bill is now being considered by the House of Commons, but the Trudeau Liberals have said they plan to reject most of the changes proposed by the oil industry.
At CAPP’s table at the Clean Energy Ministerial, Westover said she could not comment on Bill C-69.
Instead, she said, “We should be very proud of how we’re doing it here in Canada,” pointing to the industry’s investment in clean energy technology.
The amended bill's passage through the Senate comes less than a week after a joint investigation between National Observer and the Star Metro Calgary revealed it could take more than 2,800 years and, in a “hypothetical, worst-case scenario,” up to $260 billion to clean up Alberta's oilpatch.
At the time of the investigation's publication, Alberta had collected around $1.6 billion in liability securities from oil and gas companies, while the industry's financial liabilities continue to rise.