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Digging Into Oil Sands Divestment

Have some oil sands companies made significant progress on reducing carbon emissions, as Alberta’s government has said?

It depends how you define ‘significant.’ Joule Bergerson, a professor in the chemical and petroleum engineering department at the University of Calgary, told me that she’s seen reductions in carbon intensity — the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of energy extracted — in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent.

The companies themselves report having made significant reductions. Cenovus told me in a statement that its greenhouse gas intensity had fallen 30 percent in 15 years. Suncor said in a statement that emissions intensity at its oil sands base plant was down more than 60 percent since 1990.

But Dr. Bergerson added that reductions on the scale we’ve seen so far aren’t necessarily going to change investors’ minds about quitting the oil sands because they still leave most of those projects well above the global average for carbon intensity. As she put it, those companies “are really trying, and putting their money where their mouth is in terms of developing new technologies.” Still, she said, it remains unclear whether they’ll be able to cut emissions enough to persuade other investors not to leave.

How willing were people in the industry and the Canadian financial community to speak with you?

I was surprised by how difficult it was to get Canadian investors and oil sands companies to talk to me. Aside from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, none of the large pension funds agreed to my requests for interviews. The biggest oil sands companies likewise declined my requests for interviews, though some agreed to respond to written questions.

When I mentioned that to the people I spoke with, many of whom asked not to be identified, the explanation was that nobody wants to be the next one to get targeted by the premier’s office. I would have asked Mr. Kenney about that, but his office declined my request for an interview.

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