Liberals name the elephant in the room: Oil and gas emissions must come down

·6 min read

The Liberal Party is promising, if re-elected, to require the oil and gas industry to curb its greenhouse gas emissions at a pace and scale needed to meet net-zero emissions by 2050, but experts and environmentalists want details before getting their hopes up.

The climate plan highlights a number of initiatives, like energy efficiency retrofit grants and making sure all vehicles sold after 2035 are zero-emission vehicles, but the plan’s centrepiece is a commitment to cap and lower emissions from the oil and gas industry — a move experts say has long been the missing piece to a credible climate plan.

“We're effectively capping oil and gas emissions in this country, and saying there will be five-year targets that will be established, that will be binding, on the pathway to net zero,” said incumbent North Vancouver candidate Jonathan Wilkinson.

“There needs to be a path, and that path needs to be a path that has requirements, not simply aspirational goals,” he added.

The plan is to set five-year targets, starting in 2025, based on the advice of the Net-Zero Advisory Body. Wilkinson confirmed the plan is focused on reducing absolute emissions rather than emission intensity per barrel. Emission intensity refers to the emissions generated when producing a product, but from a climate perspective, absolute emissions are what count.

“It's fine, and in some respects important, that the sector improves emission intensity, but emission intensity is not sufficient because if you have more improvements … yet increase production, then you end up with an increase in absolute emissions,” said Wilkinson.

That means “any expansion with respect to the oilsands would have to fit within the cap we've put in place and the reductions that would be required,” he said. “So the only way you could see significant expansion in the oilsands is if you saw enormous improvements in emission intensity.”

Experts Canada’s National Observer spoke with applauded the Liberals for recognizing that emissions in the oil and gas sector need to be regulated if there is any chance to reduce greenhouse gases in line with what science demands, but called the commitment too vague.

“How much of this is (based) on carbon capture technology? How much of this is actually stepping in and saying no new expansion?” asked Cam Fenton with climate group 350. “There's way too much wiggle room built into it at this point in time, which is worrying ... There's a very big difference between whether or not this is a plan to wind down versus wind up and offset.”

Fenton said the platform doesn’t read like the Liberals grasped the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which United National Secretary General António Guterres called a “code red for humanity.”

“This reads more like what have we already promised, what have we put forward, and what're the new things we can add in, particularly to address the most significant critiques we're facing,” he said. “When you look at the things they're most worried about, a lot of it has to do with their foot-dragging on the Just Transition Act, and then the big elephant in the room of the climate plan has always been the lack of a plan for oil and gas emissions.

“So this feels more like it's gilding the lily of their existing plan, as opposed to actually reacting or responding to the scale of the crisis.”

Pembina Institute’s Alberta regional director Chris Severson-Baker says oil and gas companies that have already made net-zero pledges should welcome the Liberal announcement.

“It's sort of counterintuitive, but they've come out and made these pledges and now a major party is announcing that path to net zero is actually going to be part of government policy,” he explained. “Companies have made these net-zero pledges, but without policy certainty and an actual road map, they're going to find it very challenging to actually secure the investment capital they would need.”

The most notable net-zero pledge from the oilsands came in June when Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy, the companies responsible for 90 per cent of oilsands production, declared an alliance aimed at reaching net-zero through a multibillion-dollar carbon capture utilization and storage plan that would connect a sequestration hub to the oilsands with a massive trunkline.

This week Reuters revealed Natural Resources Canada is planning two major carbon capture projects, estimated to capture 15 million tonnes of carbon annually.

Severson-Baker said a suite of policies for the oil and gas sector is what’s needed because the carbon price on its own doesn’t cut it.

“You hear it all the time talking to companies and the finance sector (that) they discount the carbon price,” he said. “They discount the carbon signal because they don't have enough details or certainty about how things are going to unfold, and it results in an inability to actually move forward.”

He said that five-year plans with clear benchmarks, along with clean fuel regulations, and gradual increases to the carbon price are what provide the type of certainty needed for major investment decisions.

Elsewhere in the Liberal climate plan is a commitment to end thermal coal exports by 2030, which builds off a previous goal to phase out domestic thermal coal. In June, Wilkinson also announced what is effectively a ban on new thermal coal mines due to their greenhouse gas impact.

“If the argument is, ‘We need to stop exporting thermal coal because it's driving emissions elsewhere,’ the exact same logic applies to oil and gas,” said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada.

Climate Action Network Canada’s domestic policy manager Caroline Brouillette echoed the sentiment.

“In Canada we are still not ready to have an honest conversation about what the International Energy Agency's net-zero by 2050 report tells us, which is that to contain global warming to 1.5 C there can be no new investment in fossil fuels,” she said. “It seems like we're ready to address the coal component of that reality, but talking about the end of oil and gas is still a difficult topic in Canada.

“Obviously it's a complex and difficult transition that we'll need to undergo, but really this election should be about naming these hard choices that we'll have to make in the coming years,” she said.

Another notable commitment in the climate plan is a pledge to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas by 75 per cent from 2012 levels by 2030. That appears to represent a step up from 2016’s commitment to reduce emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025.

Methane has been identified as a priority for greenhouse gas emission reductions by the IPCC because it warms the planet faster than CO2 but has a shorter life in the atmosphere.

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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