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Members of the Saudi delegation wait for transportation at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary on Sept. 18.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

It calls itself the Olympics of the petroleum industry, and this week inside the auditoriums and cavernous presentation halls, and on the red carpets of the exhibition floor in Calgary, delegates of the 24th World Petroleum Congress got their faces printed on coffee courtesy of ExxonMobil Corp. XOM-N, watched dazzling Cirque du Soleil performances and ate Alberta beef.

But amid discussions on technology advances, regulatory environments, industry management and finance, one phrase that looms large in the global petroleum zeitgeist was notable for its absence: climate change.

It’s a sign of how much the conversation around the energy transition has changed. Just a few years ago, it was de rigueur for oil companies to highlight their climate goals. Now, global geopolitical forces have shifted the focus to energy security, and producers have become increasingly emboldened to push back on the narrative that fossil fuels will be phased out.

Instead, companies and oil-rich jurisdictions have tied the future of fossil-fuel demand squarely to affordability in the face of increasing global economic uncertainty. They cite the need to alleviate global energy poverty and often point to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the resulting foundational crumble of Europe’s natural gas supplies as evidence that supply chains must be fortified.

The World Petroleum Council unveiled its new branding at this year’s congress, officially changing its name to WPC Energy to reflect what it calls a “commitment to lead the global transition to a low-carbon energy system.” But that goal isn’t so much about reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, as it is about diversifying energy sources and lowering emissions through innovation and tools such as carbon capture and storage.

The target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was “the obvious elephant in the room,” said Wim Thomas, former chief energy adviser for Royal Dutch Shell.

Now the managing director of Netherlands-based ES3, which uses energy scenarios to inform investment strategies, Mr. Thomas told the congress Thursday that while oil companies seem confident they can make the transition work, “no one seems to be bothered about the climate-change part.”

Take Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top oil-producing countries, which is set to host the next congress in 2026. The country’s Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, said that the Middle Eastern state is committed to the energy transition and will move beyond hydrocarbons to become one of the cheapest producers of renewable energy and hydrogen.

World Petroleum Congress coming to Calgary

“We want to sell green electricity,” he told the congress this week.

Yet oil production levels must keep energy markets sustainable and secure, he added. That echoed comments from Amin Nasser, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco, who said while wind and solar will underpin an energy transition, phasing out fossil fuels prematurely would put energy security at tremendous risk.

Various credible forecasters have projected a drastic reduction in the global demand for oil and gas over the coming years as countries figure out how to hit their net-zero-by-2050 goals. That includes the International Energy Agency, which was the target of particular ire throughout the week.

Mr. Nasser, for example, dismissed the IEA’s recent forecast that oil demand would peak within the next decade, while Mr. Abdulaziz bin Salman said the agency had morphed from “a forecaster and assessor of the market to one practising political advocacy.” The state-owned oil companies of Kuwait, Brazil and Angola also took issue with various IEA forecasts and road maps to net-zero.

Data from the IEA play a role in Canada’s own climate goals. On Sunday at the opening gala for the congress, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson cited the agency’s June report that forecast oil and gas use would peak for use in vehicles and combustion in the next decade. Alberta and much of the Canadian fossil-fuel sector take issue with such messaging from Ottawa, arguing that it drives away investment, including dollars for much-needed research and development to help scale up technologies that are key to reducing emissions.

Canadian oil and gas companies must do more to reduce their emissions, minister says

Canadian intellectual property and innovations are already flowing south at a rapid clip to take advantage of incentives offered under the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, says Gurpreet Lail, the president and chief executive of Enserva, an industry group that represents the services, supply and manufacturing side of Canada’s energy sector.

“We’re the fourth-largest oil producing country, and we’re the only ones that are saying oil and gas is not here to stay. That’s a huge roadblock for all of us,” she said in an interview.

As the energy transition marches on, regulatory systems and carbon offset markets have failed to keep pace.

The resulting uncertainty has left investors wondering whether to wade into the emissions reduction space or stick with tried and true money makers such as oil and gas, said Abhishek Deshpande, the vice-president of market intelligence at Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. Balancing making money for their clients with meeting ESG goals is a huge dilemma, he told the congress.

Law firm Bennet Jones partner Jessica Kennedy in Calgary has numerous clients who have proposed novel emissions-reduction solutions, but face project finance hurdles because the carbon offset regime isn’t designed to consider their type of development, or is in “such a state of flux that it can’t be relied on in terms of knowing the ultimate economic viability of their project.”

“They’re looking for assurances from government that if they make this initial investment, the existing regime can be relied on or will be accommodating to a project because of very valid environmental reasons,” she said in an interview.

Despite the uncertainties and investment risks inherent in the energy transition, talk of the massive financial opportunity weaved throughout the congress, particularly around diversification into biofuels, hydrogen and renewables.

In this country, close to 40 per cent of the 50 investments that the Canada Infrastructure Bank has made over the past five years are in the green or clean power and energy transition space, for instance, including electric vehicle charging and hydrogen-powered transportation.

But for the transition to benefit emerging economies, developed nations must come to a compromise and agree to a fair and just transfer of capital and technology, Mr. Deshpande said.

“Globally, everybody needs to come together and hopefully … countries are able to agree on knowledge transfer, making it possible to reach the targets … to bring down emissions.”

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