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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

What Canada’s media gets wrong about the fossil fuel industry

We can’t allow elites or the oil and gas industry to control the boundaries of climate discourse

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentCanadian Business

Photo by Matt Jiggins/Flickr

Last week, the Liberal government took the first steps toward actualizing the emissions cap they promised during the last election for the oil and gas sector. In response, the Globe and Mail—as well as many of Canada’s other major media outlets—published a flurry of articles culminating in an editorial in which the paper’s board argued that climate policy aiming to cut total oil and gas production in Canada “is not an option.”

This media campaign is a political intervention with a more subtle aim than it might initially seem: outlets like the Globe aren’t trying to push the Liberal government away from its strategy. Instead, they’re feigning opposition to deliberately shape the boundaries of political debate, precluding any threats to the continued expansion of the oil and gas industry.

Before diving into exactly how this intervention works to restrict our political horizons, it’s worth clarifying just how wrong the Globe’s argument is.

First, its editors make the standard claim that if Canada doesn’t produce oil, someone else will. Insert vague claims about human rights and environmental regulations here.

This argument is, at best, naive and, at worst, deliberately manipulative. “Economics 101” tells us that supply directly impacts demand. As supply rises, prices fall and global demand increases to a new equilibrium, thus increasing total global emissions. A United States court recently invalidated a series of federal oil and gas leases precisely on this premise. As I’ve written before, applying that court’s logic to Canadian oil and gas expansion plans adds billions of excess tons of carbon dioxide due to supply-induced demand.

But even that doesn’t capture the full political economic reality of consumption: we don’t live in a world of ruthlessly efficient markets, rational actors, and transparency. Large firms leverage their power—through advertising, political influence, and other both legal and extra-legal strategies—to shape demand. The fossil fuel industry has been consciously shaping demand for its products for the last century; it worked with the state to entrench car infrastructure, convinced the public that plastic was recyclable, and of course, seeded the climate denial movement through massive disinformation campaigns. Continuing to empower the industry rather than forcibly dismantling it allows it to continue doing everything it can to grow demand for its products, something the Earth cannot afford.

Second, total global oil production needs to start declining if we want to retain any hope of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius—let alone 1.5. Immediately. This isn’t a radical claim; it’s established science. Every single IPCC model includes (many would argue unrealistically) high levels of carbon removal, but still requires oil production to decline sharply. The UN Environment Programme publishes an annual report quantifying the gap between global fossil fuel production plans and the levels of fossil fuel production compatible with various warming targets. The conclusion is quite clear on two counts: first, that production “must start declining immediately and steeply.” And second, that governments like Canada’s “plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”

Which raises the third problem with the Globe’s argument: it pays lip service to the idea that global oil consumption may eventually decline (seemingly after 2050) but implicitly asserts that Canada should be the very last country producing oil. This is the same argument that every fossil fuel company and fossil fuel producing country makes as they try to reconcile continued oil and gas expansion with the urgent need to rapidly scale back production.

The problem for the Globe, and for the Liberal government, is that Canada is in a uniquely bad position to make that argument: we have some of the most costly and pollutive oil and gas in the world. The Globe actually notes this, but brushes it off by suggesting that capital investments (particularly in risky bets like carbon capture technologies) will allow fossil fuel companies to dramatically improve their emissions intensity.

A study published last year in Nature looked at exactly this question: the authors used cost and emissions intensity to allocate which fossil fuels could still be extracted (and burned) within a 1.5°C compatible global scenario. They found that as much as 98 percent of Canadian oil resources and 89 percent of Canadian fossil gas resources are unextractable precisely because Canada has “resource bases that are more carbon intensive and higher cost.” In contrast with the Globe’s claim that carbon removal will allow the continued growth of Canada’s oil industry, the study authors found that allowing for substantially higher levels of carbon removal only reduced their “unextractable estimates” by two to three percent.

The clever thing the Globe is accomplishing with this intervention is that it’s forcing us to make these arguments: we’re playing on the court that the fossil fuel industry drew.

There’s a far less convoluted way to understand the situation: on the one hand, Canada’s “scope 3” emissions—the emissions of fossil fuels extracted here and burned elsewhere “—are greater than all of Canada’s domestic emissions combined. On the other hand, Canada is one of the countries most responsible for climate change on both a present and historical per capita basis.

We have no right to continue burning the world for our own benefit. Oil companies and the Liberal government have even less of a right to do it for their own benefit.

But thanks to the Globe and other legacy media outlets we can’t seem to have that conversation. The success of their strategy is why opposition to projects like the Trans Mountain expansion and Coastal GasLink focuses so heavily on the pipelines themselves but leaves the upstream oil and gas expansion largely uncriticized. It’s also why the Liberal government’s signature climate policy under development in 2022 is a sectoral emissions cap coupled with massive subsidies for carbon capture—a policy that carefully shies away from any risk of actually cutting production.

Towards the end of the piece, the Globe editors allow a peek behind the editorial veil: “Ottawa has to tune out the most radical voices from both sides of this debate and make a reasonable, fact-based determination about how much of an emissions reduction the industry realistically can be asked to achieve.”

Here, the Globe maneuvers the managed decline of Canada’s oil industry out of the realm of the possible, relegating it to the naïve and “radical” world of young climate activists, clearing space so the ‘realists’ can talk about what’s actually achievable. Unfortunately for most of us, as the UN Secretary General recently put it, the “truly dangerous radicals are countries increasing fossil fuels production.” Countries like Canada.

The oil and gas industry has controlled Canadian discourse for too long: we owe it to the rest of the world to put supply back on the table. Coastal GasLink wouldn’t be a project without plans for a massive expansion of fracked gas production in BC’s “sacrifice zone.” The Trans Mountain expansion wouldn’t be needed without an intent to massively expand the tar sands. The science is clear: none of these upstream projects are compatible with a livable future. We can’t allow the Globe, the Liberal government, or the oil and gas industry to control the boundaries of Canada’s climate discourse.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in Squamish, BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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