• Graham Harris

More ambition, please - corporate GHG emission reduction targets in Alberta's oil and gas sector.

Last month’s blog post presented a visualization of Alberta’s GHG emissions since 1990. This showed how the oil and gas sector has become increasingly dominant in the provincial emissions mix over time, and particularly in the last 10 years, such that the carbon footprint of the sector is now as large as the entire rest of the provincial economy combined. Clearly, if Alberta is to do its part in the battle to limit the harmful impacts of climate change, our oil and gas industry needs to be front and centre in this fight.

However, whether and how our oil and gas industry participates in this societal transition has unfortunately become a rather polarised topic over the last several years, with people (quite literally) shouting “SHUT DOWN THE TAR SANDS!” on one side and “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE CANADIAN OIL!” on the other. These are both irrational, albeit understandable, perspectives deeply rooted in an emotional reaction – fear – and neither is cognizant of the practical realities of both our economy and our environment. Shutting down the industry overnight would spell economic and social disaster for Alberta (and probably wouldn’t do much to help the environment either, unless competing jurisdictions did the same). On the other hand, continuing business-as-usual – and even expanding the industry – while both physically and psychologically exporting the emissions associated with production, is clearly untenable for our already overburdened climate system.

A path that avoids these extremes should be possible – one where the industry works hard to decarbonize it’s production footprint and to transition into cleaner forms of energy production, and where emissions that cannot be avoided are offset by genuine carbon capture and sequestration. After all, as I’ve noted in a blog post before, our goal does not need to be to eliminate all GHG emissions completely, but to ensure that the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere does not increase.

The key question therefore is what is our oil and gas industry actually doing? Before I present a brief answer to this question, a caveat: the subject of oil and gas emissions reduction could fill blog posts for years! There are dozens of examples of interesting technological innovations within the sector and success stories in terms of reducing emissions. However, for the purpose of this blog post I’ll be concentrating on corporate level commitments and targets – after all, reducing venting or increasing energy efficiency at a project level is obviously a good thing, but unless individual projects are part of a greater structural effort to contain and reduce emissions across the board, their impact will always be limited.

Our industry has over 300 producers, but 80% of production comes from around 30 and over 50% of production[i] comes from the top 10. So, let’s take a look at the commitments that have been made by the largest 10 producers in the province[ii].

  1. CNRL - 16% of production - has set a long-term “aspirational target” of net zero GHG emissions from oil sand operations (link).

  2. Cenovus - 14% of production - has set a target to hold absolute GHG emissions flat to 2030 while reducing GHG emissions intensity by 30%, with a longer-term target to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050 (link).

  3. Suncor - 6% of production - has set a target of reducing its GHG emission intensity by 30% by 2030 (link).

  4. Tourmaline - 5% of production - has set a methane reduction target of 25% by 2023 compared to 2018 (link) but has no overall GHG emissions reduction target.

  5. Imperial Oil - 3% of production - has set a target to reduce GHG emissions intensity from oil sands by 10% by 2023 compared to 2016 (link).

  6. Husky - 3% of production - has set a methane reduction target of 40-45% by 2025 compared to 2012 (link) but has no overall GHG emissions reduction target.

  7. Seven Generations - 3% of production - has set a goal to be “one of the lowest carbon intensity natural gas producers on a per-barrel of oil equivalent basis” (link).

  8. Peyto - 2% of production - has set a goal to achieve a 50% reduction in methane emissions intensity and “where possible and with available technology, to completely eliminate all methane emissions and leaks” (link).

  9. Birchcliff - 2% of production - Birchcliff has not set a GHG emissions reduction target (link).

  10. Torxen - 2% of production - Torxen has not set a GHG emissions reduction target (link).

To put these commitments in context, to limit global average temperature increases to 1.5°C will require worldwide GHG emissions to fall by 50% from 2016 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050 (link). Thus, while it is encouraging to see that most of these companies have some kind of emissions reduction target (and disappointing to see some do not) none of these targets fully align with climate science, and are either too vague, too weak or incomplete.

It is therefore clear that we need our oil and gas industry to adopt a much more ambitious approach. Although we have much to thank our oil and gas industry for – it has helped to provide a strong economic base for many Albertans for decades – it needs to continue to evolve and innovate and it needs to stretch itself to help solve the climate change challenge, both in the near term and the longer term.

[i] For simplicity, this represents “OIL” and “GAS” coded volumes only (and thus doesn’t include condensate, ethane, etc) converted into m3OE, based on reported production (“PROD” activity code) only. Gas has been converted to m3OE using a value of 1000m3 natural gas = 0.971 m3OE. As the code OIL does not differentiate between light oil (1 m3/m3OE), heavy oil (1.075 m3/m3OE) or crude bitumen (1.111 m3/m3OE), an average value of 1.062 m3/m3OE has been used. [ii] I’ve used Petrinex data from June 2020 – the most recent month of public data available – as a representative month for this discussion. There are obvious limitations to using a single month’s data; however, the Petrinex monthly datasets are rather huge and unwieldly – with over half a million rows of data per month – and Excel was struggling to combine even two months together, never mind 12!

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Calgary, AB, Canada