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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks during the Canada 2020 Net-Zero Leadership Summit in Ottawa on April 19. Despite setting goals for net-zero emissions by 2050 to align with federal targets, a new report argues the Atlantic provinces have actively pushed for further fossil development.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A group of academics is warning that Atlantic Canada is at risk of being locked into fossil fuels for too long, underscoring the region’s challenges to attain net-zero emissions goals by 2050.

Many residents in parts of Atlantic Canada remain dependent on heating oil or coal-fired electricity for their homes, while much of the economy revolves around generating revenue from fossil fuels, according to a new study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are still “open to new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure and projects that would further lock their economies in those non-renewable and highly polluting energy sources,” the study’s co-authors said.

Despite a trend toward electric heat pumps, the federal government recently said the proportion of homes in Canada relying on heating oil remains the highest in the Atlantic region – an estimated 56 per cent in Prince Edward Island, 39 per cent in Nova Scotia, 15 per cent in New Brunswick and 15 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Canadian Climate Institute said in April that electric heat pumps have been rapidly embraced in Atlantic Canada over the past decade, with New Brunswick now leading the way at 32 per cent of households recently using heat pumps as their primary energy source, followed by PEI at 27 per cent and Nova Scotia at 21 per cent.

Last November, the federal government announced grants of up to $5,000 per qualifying household to switch away from heating oil and instead install an electric heat pump. The grants would help cover costs such as the removal of an oil tank.

The new report is co-authored by four professors: Angela Carter at the University of Waterloo, Emily Eaton at the University of Regina, Éric Pineault at the Université du Québec à Montréal and J.P. Sapinski at Université de Moncton; and Darin Brooks, an instructor at the College of the North Atlantic.

On the energy demand side, “governments and environmental groups alike encourage individuals and institutions to calculate their carbon footprints and take actions to reduce it, sometimes providing financial incentives to do so,” their report said.

But on the energy supply side, a wide range of fossil fuel projects remain in operation in the Atlantic Provinces, with various proposals envisaged for many years to come.

“The majority of Nova Scotia’s electricity is generated from coal in four generating stations, three of them located on Cape Breton Island using imported coal,” the co-authors wrote.

Climate activists have helped to place the spotlight on energy projects having large emissions of greenhouse gases, including offshore oil production near Newfoundland and Labrador.

Despite setting goals for net-zero emissions by 2050 to align with federal targets, “the governments of New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have actively obstructed transition, pushing for further fossil development,” according to the report.

Except for a small exemption, there is a moratorium on fracking of natural gas in New Brunswick, but Premier Blaine Higgs has said that fracking ban should be re-examined.

Most plans to export liquefied natural gas from the East Coast have fizzled.

Repsol SA REPYF announced in March that it cancelled its plans to export natural gas in liquid form from its Saint John LNG site in New Brunswick. Pieridae Energy Ltd. PEA-T abandoned its proposal to export 10 million tonnes a year of LNG, pinning its hopes instead on vastly scaled-down plans for its Goldboro LNG project in Nova Scotia.

A long-term proposal, called LNG Newfoundland and Labrador, remains active.

“Even without the addition of new fossil fuel projects, Eastern Canada is already tightly ‘locked’ into fossil fuels, given existing infrastructure,” said the report, which includes a long list of fossil fuel projects and proposals in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

The co-authors noted that Quebec generates 98 per cent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. But like in other provinces, Quebec has “fleets of internal combustion engine vehicles and machinery, as well as heating systems based on fossil gas, and industrial processes dependent on coal, gas and oil,” the report said.

The fossil fuel industry has been lobbying governments for a very slow transition, but speed is of utmost importance, the co-authors said.

Hydrogen proposals are gaining popularity, though such plans need to be viewed through a critical lens, the study said. “The fossil fuel sector, threatened by the rise of renewables and mounting political pressure to curtail fossil fuel supply as the climate crisis intensifies, is now pivoting to hydrogen as one way to secure a place in the net-zero future,” according to the report.

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