“Slow and steady wins the race.” It’s the key takeaway from Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, one that parents have tried to teach their kids for generations. It also forms the basis of the oil and gas industry’s latest attempt to push back against climate policy in Canada. And unlike its previous postures, which have included denying the existence of climate change or suggesting Canada can’t do much about it, this one might actually work.
On the positive side, at least they’re finally willing to admit the scale of the problem. In a recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Pathways Alliance CEO Kendall Dilling acknowledged that “Canada’s oil sands industry recognizes we are one of our country’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters, and that we have a major role to play in helping meet the national climate-change commitment of net-zero emissions by 2050.”
But, he insisted, the large oilsands companies his organization represents can’t be rushed into reducing those emissions any time soon. “Impractical time frames for emissions-reduction targets could drive investment away from our industry and our country, reducing production in Canada while increasing output and emissions in other countries.”
Never mind that these imaginary other countries almost certainly have lower per-barrel emissions than Canada, which would mean a net reduction in the global inventory. And let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that what could really drive investment away is reckless talk from Danielle Smith, someone who might be the next premier of Alberta, about disregarding the Constitution. Just ask Quebecers who were around in the 1970s and 1980s how good separatism was for attracting investment to the province.
The bigger problem here is that the industry and its various lobby groups still don’t seem to understand the kind of race they’re running, nor the pace at which their competitors are speeding away from them. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will turbocharge the clean energy sector in the United States, including its efforts to develop carbon capture and storage projects. The war in Ukraine has awoken Europe to the existential threat its reliance on Russian gas imports presents, and it has responded by accelerating the timetable for their phaseout. Even Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest oil-exporting economies on Earth, is betting big on electric vehicles and battery technology.
The Pathways companies also don’t seem to understand what some of their larger institutional investors are actually looking for. Yes, they want stability, certainty and, above all, profitability. But they’ve also made pledges around emissions reductions and net-zero commitments that they have to live up to. As the Pembina Institute noted in a 2022 report called Getting on Track, “oilsands producers will have to demonstrate significant progress in their emission reduction strategies to keep investment capital flowing into their sector.”
In other words, they need to do more than rag the puck and stall for time. But so far, the strategy laid out by the Pathways companies seems to lean heavily on magic beans and the passage of time. As the Pembina Institute’s report notes, “it assumes that to achieve net-zero, participating companies will rely to a large extent on strategies that will not be technically or economically viable until after 2030. To be credible, the vision document that has been put forward by oilsands companies should be accompanied by a detailed plan and aligned with Canada’s commitment to achieve an economy wide 40–45% emission reduction by 2030.”
Instead, the oilsands companies want Canadians to trust them and their commitment to reducing emissions, even though those emissions have risen by nearly 140 per cent since 2005. But when it comes to the oilsands and trusting unproven technologies, we’ve seen this movie before. Despite lots of talk about their commitment to innovation and environmental stewardship, the problem posed by toxic tailings ponds continues to get bigger. The best the Alberta government’s energy propaganda centre can say is that the rate of growth in these tailings has slowed. “Decades of operations, increasing oil sands production, technological challenges and the regulatory requirement to store untreated process-affected water have contributed to a large accumulation of tailings in Alberta,” the Canadian Energy Centre’s Deborah Jaremko wrote.
Why, then, should we trust them to clean up their greenhouse gas emissions? Slow-playing the challenge of reducing emissions might be just fine for the middle-aged senior executives at these oil companies, who would surely rather continue with business (and bonuses) as usual until they retire. But it’s bad for the long-term health of the companies they run (never mind the province, country and world they live in), which will have to eventually face down the double-whammy of declining global oil demand and rising costs for high-carbon producers.
It’s not clear whether these oilsands companies and their advocates are holding out for more time, more money or both. Either way, the federal government has a responsibility to the rest of the country to hold them accountable for their promises — and keep them in the race they don’t seem very interested in running.