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Low-carbon oil is not a thing, and ‘clean, green’ technology does not exist

Author Lori Lee Oates says that the concept of low carbon oil does not take into account the fact that most emissions from oil and gas are downstream and do not occur during extraction. (Nicholas Hillier Photography / Submitted by Lori Lee Oates)

This column is an opinion of Lori Lee Oates, a lecturer living in St. John’s. More information about CBC’s opinion, Please look at … FAQ.


On May 6, the Prime Minister’s Economic Recovery Team released its report The big reset. One of the report’s ways to reset Newfoundland and Labrador was to transition to a green economy.

The problem with the provincial government’s approach, however, is that it depends on the term “low carbon oil”.

The Report of the Task Force on the Restoration of the Oil and Gas Industry states that offshore Newfoundland and Labrador greenhouse gas emissions per barrel are below the world average.

It also warns that emissions will rise without developing and investing in clean technologies.

We plan to support oil companies with our green energy investments to reduce emissions of this supposedly “low-carbon oil”. The fulfillment of our global climate protection commitments under this plan depends on the technology that does not yet exist.

Wind and solar energy is already here and cheaper than electricity powered by fossil fuels in many parts of the world. However, oil companies would prefer the government to give them the money to develop new technologies rather than using already proven technologies.

The fact that the government is acting in the best interests of the oil companies rather than the citizens says something about where power lies in this province.

While Canada’s energy regulator is forecasting a steep and steady decline in Newfoundland and Labrador oil production in 2050 (see Task Force Report on page 13), our executives are looking to change that forecast through “improved joint management.”

Usually this means relaxing the environmental standards and shortening the approval processes.

Most of the emissions from oil are downstream

The concept of low carbon oil also fails to take into account the fact that most emissions from oil and gas are downstream.

That said, the vast majority of emissions don’t come from removing oil from the soil. Most of them arise when we drive, fly in airplanes or use boats.

The Transocean Barents semi-submersible rig is pictured in the Flemish Pass, an area that Newfoundland and Labrador see as the closest frontier for offshore oil production. (Equinor)

For example, the World Resources Institute only claims that 5.5 percent of emissions in Hibernia are created during the upstream process.

There must be a major shift to electric vehicles in this decade to meet the climate goals. Indeed, reputable business journalists predict that electric vehicles will soon be the same price than gasoline-powered vehicles. Building more electric vehicles is an essential part of the US infrastructure plan.

The Government of Canada has programs to support the transition to electric vehicles and is funding the construction of charging stations across the country.

Oil cannot survive without customers, and our country is starting a carbon pricing process designed to make people pay for their emissions. This essentially makes the consumption of Canadian oil more expensive.

In addition, some of the largest and cheapest fields in the world have similar upstream emissions as the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore fields. You also have lower operating costs.

The business cases for our oil are not looking good. Betting our planet, our economy, and our future on carbon capture is a risky proposition to say the least.

This is about profit, not political stability

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that Canada would increase its emissions reduction target to 40 percent below 2005 Levels.

However, the federal government is also planning to increase oil production. There is a huge gap between Canada’s climate goals and our oil production plan, as Angela Carter pointed out to CBCs What in the world.

We have known since at least 2015 that a significant portion of the discovered oil reserves will do so must stay in the ground to achieve existing climate goals. At that point, we were aiming for 2 ° C global warming instead 1.5 C..

Oil companies have never bothered with low carbon oil unless they can use it as a greenwashing tool. They pretend to be environmentally friendly when this is not the case.

Big Oil will also not make decisions based on the political stability of nations or their human rights records, as many proponents of Canada’s oil industry want.

In reality, the decision to stop production is made by Big Oil when projects become impractical. However, they will continue to seek subsidies from our governments as they can no longer depend on production profits.

This is the biggest clue of all of where this is going.

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