New climate alliance to push for phasing out oil and gas at upcoming climate conference

·5 min read
A flare stack lights the sky at an oil refinery in Edmonton in December 2018. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A flare stack lights the sky at an oil refinery in Edmonton in December 2018. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

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A new climate alliance set to launch at the COP26 conference is taking aim at the oil and gas industry, putting pressure on Canada to set a clear date to wind down oil and gas extraction in this country.

The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, headed by Denmark and Costa Rica, will bring together countries and subnational entities willing to set an end date for fossil fuel extraction. The list of those signing on will be released in Glasgow, Scotland, during the major climate conference starting there next week.

"We think that to be a climate leader you also have to lead on the difficult questions, and ending oil and gas extraction is definitely one of the defining questions of climate action," Tomas Anker Christensen, Denmark's climate ambassador, said in an interview with CBC's The House airing Saturday.

Denmark announced last year it would stop issuing new licenses for oil and gas exploration as part of a wider plan to phase out extraction by 2050. Denmark has been the largest oil producer in the European Union since the United Kingdom left the bloc in 2020.

Echoing the words of his country's energy minister, Christensen questioned how countries can hope to meet their net-zero by 2050 commitments while also expanding oil and gas production.

"It is a paradox. It's hard to envision how you do both," he told guest host Laura Lynch. The International Energy Agency said in a recent report that nations pushing for a net-zero world by 2050 have no reason to invest in expanding oil production after this year.

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But it's not clear if Canada will join the nascent alliance, given its status as the fourth largest producer and third largest exporter of oil in the world.

The IEA report suggests Canadian oil production will continue to grow until 2030 under existing policies. Even under the government's proposed policies, Canadian production will fall just 100,000 barrels a day by then, the agency estimates, down from the over five million barrels per day produced in 2020.

Responding to a request for comment from The House, the federal government did not say whether it intends to join the Beyond Oil and Gas alliance but did say climate change was both a "competitiveness issue" and "economic opportunity" for oil and gas.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

"The majority of oil and gas companies are already committed to net-zero by 2050, and in order to get to our shared goal, emissions from the oil and gas sector need to go down," said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson's press secretary, Joanna Sivasankaran, in a media statement.

"We committed in our platform, and have a strong mandate, to ensure that pollution from the oil and gas sector doesn't go up from current levels and instead goes down at the pace and scale needed to get to net-zero by 2050."

Oil and gas extraction has driven much of emissions growth over the last decade or so, going from 63 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2005 to 105 in 2019.

The Canadian oil industry has argued that it has a strong commitment to reducing emissions and investing in clean energy technology.

No decision yet from Quebec

Simon Donner, a professor and climate scientist at the University of British Columbia who also serves on Canada's Net-Zero Advisory Body, told The House it's unlikely Canada will join the alliance at this point.

"I think it would be a great signal to the rest of the world for Canada to join an initiative like that. I don't think we're probably ready to do it, though, right now," he said.

But Canada could be pre-empted by subnational groups. California, for example, set a target this year to end oil extraction by 2045.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Closer to home, Quebec Premier François Legault announced his intention to ban any oil and gas extraction in the province.

A spokesperson for Quebec's environment minister, Benoit Charette, did not say whether the province would join the alliance later this month.

"The initiative is interesting but as of now no decision has been made," said Charette's press secretary Rosalie Tremblay-Cloutier in an emailed response. Quebec does not currently have any commercial oil or gas production operations, though it has issued exploration licenses.

An 'awkward' position: expert

Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of the group Destination Zero, said Quebec and California's recent policy moves "potentially makes them eligible" to join the alliance, which would be "really significant" given the potential for expansion in the oil and gas sectors of both Canada and the United States over the next decade.

In an interview on The House, Abreu said Canada's position on the oil and gas industry leaves it in an "awkward" place in terms of meeting its climate goals.

"We've seen our government's very reluctant to take that challenge on fossil fuels," she said.

COP26 would only make that position more difficult, added Jennifer Allan, a lecturer at Cardiff University and adviser with the Earth Negotiations Bulletin publication.

"Well, one thing that COPs are good at is increasing pressure on countries," she said. "Sometimes it really leads to a lot of pressure being put on governments to start to do, frankly, the right thing."

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