Jason Kenney sat down with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board for a wide-ranging session shortly after he was elected Premier of Alberta last year. When asked about some international investors starting to shun the oil sands, Mr. Kenney declared it was a passing fad, the “flavour of the day.”
It’s been a long day.
The oil sands have become a global climate-change lightning rod, the bitumen of northeastern Alberta called the “tar sands” and branded the dirtiest oil anywhere. The image is unfair, but it has become a reality that Alberta and Canada must address.
It seemed less pressing in years past, when it was only a few Hollywood stars helicoptering aghast over oil sands mines. Opposition has since expanded, and today the list of those who feel it financially prudent to take up the mantle of oil sands skeptic includes some of the world’s biggest money managers, banks, insurers and, yes, even oil companies.
The shift began several years ago. In 2017, Royal Dutch Shell, a long-time oil sands investor, sold most of its holdings. HSBC in 2018 backed away from financing oil sands projects. Earlier this year, BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, said it would exclude oil sands firms from several funds, calling it and coal “the worst offenders … from a climate perspective.” And in May, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund cut holdings of Canada’s oil sands producers, deeming their greenhouse gas emissions “unacceptable.”
In the past several weeks, Zurich Insurance Group pulled out as lead insurer of the Trans Mountain pipeline, Deutsche Bank said it would not fund new oil sands projects; and Total, the French oil company with two large oil sands holdings, put out a news release titled “climate ambition” and said it would produce less from the oil sands than previously planned.
Mr. Kenney’s instinct has been to fight back by lashing out. He accused HSBC of “hypocrisy.” He established a countermarketing “war room,” but it has been a flop, persuading no one. Its response to the Norwegians involved putting out a series of “facts” and calling the divestment “misinformed at best.” In late July, Alberta’s Energy Minister lambasted Total’s move as “poorly informed and short-sighted.”
It’s true Alberta and Canada have robust regulatory systems, are taking real action on climate change, and that Indigenous people are active in the business of the oil sands. Conservatives love to say that, compared with countries such as Angola or Saudi Arabia, Alberta oil is “ethical oil.” All true. Yet international opinion is, nonetheless, moving against the oil sands. Countering that narrative will be difficult.
It is also true the moves against the oil sands are largely symbolic corporate marketing campaigns, in response to pressure from activists. Deutsche Bank still does business with oil companies. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is financed by oil revenues. Oil companies, including those in the oil sands, are in the portfolios of many BlackRock funds. Total’s oil sands stake is still producing more than 100,000 barrels a day of Canadian bitumen.
Using the oil sands to check a climate-action box is an easy, cost-free PR win for some corporations and politicians. It’s why Barack Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015. That did nothing to temper America’s voracious appetite for oil, or its (at the time) booming fracking industry, but it got environmentalists off his back.
For Canada and Alberta to change the narrative, words will not be enough. Zesty rejoinders will fall flat. In the writing business, there is a saying: Show, don’t tell. Alberta spends a lot of time telling.
More show, please. Action is essential. The oil sands are getting cleaner – emissions per barrel are falling – but, to secure the future, they have to get cleaner, faster. To shake the “stigma,” the head of Canadian Natural Resources recently said, meeting emissions reduction targets is crucial.
Mr. Kenney’s first act in office was to eliminate the consumer carbon tax in Alberta. He then watered down Alberta’s industrial carbon tax and fought Ottawa for weaker rules on methane. Canada, meanwhile, may have a nationwide carbon tax, but its 2022 level of $50 a tonne is not especially high. It is not a signal of major ambition.
Two-thirds of Canada’s oil production comes from the oil sands. Alberta and Canada need to show the world this country is serious about reducing oil sands emissions, if we want to keep selling bitumen. Show, don’t tell.
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