Cheap oil and climate change spell opportunity for energy giants: Don Pittis

Predictions that the global oil glut will persist, plus a revival of stalled climate change action sounds like bad news for Canada's energy industry. It's just not so, says Don Pittis. Instead, Canadian oil companies must drum out the dinosaurs and turn sophisticated energy technology to their advantage.

Canadian energy companies perfectly placed to make silk purse from sow's ear

Energy companies like TransAlta make power with wind turbines near Pincher Creek, Alta. The company also make electricity with natural gas and coal. Don Pittis says such companies could turn an instant profit by spinning off a pure green-power stock listing, just one way to profit from the energy industries' green tech advantage. (Reuters)

This story is part of a package of special coverage of climate change issues by CBC News leading up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

"They can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" sounds like an admiring remark from your grandma. But when it comes to facing up to something ostensibly bad and turning it into something precious, there is no one better equipped than the complex of Canadian companies and researchers currently suffering from plunging oil prices.

After another brief revival, there are new signs that oil will not bounce back any time soon. There also are signs that the world may be on the verge of actually taking climate change warnings seriously.

But if it plays its cards right, the Canadian energy complex is ideally placed to profit from the move from carbon fuels to high-tech, low-carbon energy. It should publicly celebrate the fact.

Until now, a large contingent within the North American oil industry has been playing a defensive game, dismissing the science of climate change and pressing for lax carbon laws. For a decade, they pressed for more and more oil development.

As a long term business strategy, that has turned out to be a dud.

Persistent glut

The oil glut persists. Profits are falling. The International Energy Association says oil prices may not start to rise till after 2020. New York investors are betting that oil will remain below $49 US until November next year. Others are betting oil will go much lower yet
Oil and gas still has a bright future. But who better than Alberta's energy sector to invent lower carbon methods for doing things like extracting hydrogen from natural gas. (Reuters)

It may be that our perception in Canada has been distorted by the recent change of government, but there is a feeling that the global mood on climate change is shifting. If industrialized countries really face up to the reality that places such as the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia and large parts of the Netherlands are in danger of flooding, they may take action. 

A significant tax on carbon will not only continue to hold down the price of carbon-based fuels, but it will boost the value of investments in non-carbon alternatives.

Unless some radical new science suddenly disproves the majority view on human-caused climate change, non-carbon energy is the future. And there is no one in the world with more of the skills and the smarts to profit from a low-carbon future than the Canadian oil and gas industry, largely centred in Alberta.

To many of its critics, oilpatch investment in wind and solar has seemed like greenwashing. That's when a known polluter uses advertising and public relations to make itself look clean and green.

But there is no question the oil industry has been investing in green energy. Iogen, an Ottawa-based leader in using enzymes to turn wood scraps and straw into alcohol fuel, was supported for years by Canadian taxpayers. It was bought by Shell and its operations moved to Brazil. 

Edmonton's Capital Power has operations producing energy from solar, wind and coal. Suncor has a stake in green power. In fact, according to a CBC investigation, it is hard to invest in Canadian green technology without investing in the industries that extract or burn carbon fuel.

That makes it hard for Canadian investors wanting to divest from coal, oil and gas to put their money into a pure non-carbon play. 

New growth business

Whether that fossil fuel industry investment was originally part of some sort of nefarious strategy or based on altruism, the move has given Canada's oil and gas sector an inside track on a new growth industry.

Different energy technologies have many points of crossover. Managing electricity from coal plants is like managing energy from solar. After it is produced, electricity is all made of the same stuff. 

A Calgary company that built its expertise in natural gas tanks transferred those skills to hydrogen fuel. There is no reason other Canadian companies, expert at producing and transporting gas, cannot do similar things.

The current main source of hydrogen is natural gas. Who better to invent more efficient ways of making the conversion than oil and gas engineers and chemists. 

Government and industry could offer a series of more focused prizes, similar to the Carbon Xprize, to stimulate and reward breakthroughs. The Alberta university and research sector are already dense with energy expertise.

Piece of the future

Despite all the current gloom over the fossil fuel business, there's a lot of steam left in oil and gas. Even once Canada develops an effective way of pricing carbon, fossil fuels will remain crucial to the economy for decades. As in any business, the most cost-efficient producers will continue to be profitable. That depends on technology, too.

But if the Canadian energy industry wants to get a piece of the future, they must gently push the pro-carbon dinosaurs to the sidelines and celebrate their technological advantage.

In fact, Canadian oil and gas companies could turn an instant profit by spinning off green energy divisions into separate stock listings while retaining a major stake. In the age of carbon divestment, stocks in well-run, low-carbon businesses will sell at a premium.

On the world's stock markets, the value of a company is not based on the boring past but the prospects of a brilliant future. If it can do the job right, Canada's energy industry future sparks with potential.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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