Varcoe: 'Deranged vendetta' — Political circus overshadows need for serious talk on Canada's energy future

‘Assigning blame may be comforting, but it doesn’t provide us with any solutions’

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This should be the moment to have a serious debate about Canadian energy and decarbonization, as this country is the world’s fourth-largest oil and fifth-largest natural gas producer and will need massive amounts of investment to cut emissions.

Or, it could be a time for the political circus to come to town.

I’ll let you guess what happened in Ottawa on Thursday at the House of Commons committee on environment and sustainable development. It called a number of oil and gas leaders, virtually, to answer questions about industry profits and its emissions reduction efforts.

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Even before it began, NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Laurel Collins talked to reporters and set the tone.

“These rich oil and gas executives have been raking in record profits, fuelling the climate crisis, and yet still continue to come to government cap in hand, asking for more handouts,” said Collins.

“I will be asking the big oil and gas CEOs how they sleep at night.”

Angus, the party’s outspoken natural resources critic, was less nuanced.

He pointed out that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called for an end to fossil fuel industry advertising, something he backs.

“What concerns me at this time is how provocative big oil CEOs like (Suncor’s) Rich Kruger are. They know damn well what they’re doing,” said Angus.

“What they are asking for is more handouts, they’re asking to increase production in the tarsands . . . They’re not attempting to reduce emissions and they’re saying, ‘We will continue to make profits, we will continue to burn your children’s future but, hey, if you want us to lower emissions, you pay for the cost.’ ”

That’s about as subtle as the Road Runner dropping an anvil on Wile E. Coyote, and about as realistic.

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Perhaps it’s good wedge politics to point fingers and denounce the sector, but it neglects to mention that Canadians also rely on fossil fuel to heat homes and power vehicles, and it’s used in a host of products that come from oil and gas.

“This is some kind of deranged vendetta . . . against our oil and gas industry. It’s getting increasingly bizarre and it doesn’t recognize that the energy sector generates a heck of a lot of tax revenue for the federal government,” Premier Danielle Smith said in an interview.

“They’re barking up the wrong tree if they think that somehow capsizing and collapsing this industry is going to be a net positive for the country — it’s not.”

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But it also distracts from the need for a realistic discussion about finding the best ways to curb emissions while continuing to provide energy security for the world — and Canada’s key role in it.

“This kind of accusatory, belligerent talk is highly unproductive and it’s not going to lead to any consensus at a time when we desperately need to find some consensus,” said energy economist Peter Tertzakian, who has called for a conversation about Canadian energy policy.

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“It’s a distraction to the real conversation, but it is more than that . . . I don’t know of anyone in the oil and gas industry who wakes up in the morning and says I want to trash the environment and my children’s future.”

At the committee, the oilsands executives — including Kruger, Imperial Oil CEO Brad Corson and Cenovus Energy’s Jon McKenzie — faced questions about the industry’s recent profits and their company’s spending on decarbonization plans.

Liberal MP Leah Taylor Roy challenged the notion from one CEO that oil and gas is good for Canadians, saying it depends on how one defines “good.”

“Most Canadians believe that what is good for Canadians is actually keeping global temperature increases to less than 1.5 and certainly two degrees Celsius,” she said.

“And they believe that not seeing out-of-control forest fires, floods and droughts is certainly good.”

During his opening address, Kruger said the industry wants to be able to spend on decarbonization, but it can’t do so unconditionally and unilaterally if no one wants to invest in the industry or in Canada.

“The world will not consume one less barrel of oil simply because Canada chooses not to provide it. That barrel will come from somewhere else,” he said.

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“Canadians expect more from their political and business leaders than pointing fingers and clinging to ideology.”

trudeau and oilpatch ceo
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Rich Kruger, CEO of Suncor Energy, during a fireside chat at Calgary Economic Development on April 5, 2024. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

The oil and gas sector is the largest emitting industry in the country, responsible for 31 per cent of Canada’s emissions in 2022. The biggest contributor within the industry was the oilsands, at 87 megatonnes, and that figure has gone up as production has climbed over the past two decades.

“This is not only about our climate targets, it’s about future-proofing the oil and gas sector . . . to compete in a low-carbon world,” MC Bouchard, the Pembina Institute’s oil and gas program director, said in a statement before the hearing.

The industry is a huge driver of tens of thousands of jobs, investment and Canada’s exports, and generates billions of dollars in government revenues and royalties each year, a point stressed by Smith.

While overall emissions have gone up with higher output, the emissions per barrel have come down, falling about 23 per cent since 2009, according to data by S&P Global Commodity Insights.

The industry has taken steps such as using solvents to reduce steam in thermal oilsands operations, and companies are focused on being more efficient with their energy consumption, said Kevin Birn of S&P.

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Six of the largest oilsands producers have also formed the Pathways Alliance and have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. They’re developing a massive $16.5-billion carbon capture and storage network and are seeking government incentives to move forward on it.

On the policy front, Canada has adopted a national price on carbon, clean fuel regulations and it will introduce an emissions cap on the industry — something no other major oil-producing country has done.

“Assigning blame may be comforting, but it doesn’t provide us with any solutions,” Birn said.

“The solutions are complex, they require massive industrial build-outs, large-scale investments. And, frankly, in the interim period . . . those fossil fuels will continue to be needed.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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