Alberta's carbon tax should comfort OPEC amid Paris climate talks

OPEC's next meeting is happening at the same time as the Paris climate conference. Symbolically, it's a clash of old economy versus new, but when the dust settles will anything really change?

Down the road from Paris climate conference, it's business as usual for OPEC in Vienna

Premier Rachel Notley, flanked by oil executives and others, unveils Alberta's climate strategy, which includes a broad-based carbon tax. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

If OPEC, which meets later this week in Vienna, is worried about what's happening at the climate change conference in Paris, the group might look for comfort to, of all people, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

The image of an NDP leader introducing a carbon tax while flanked by a coterie of approving oil executives, while surreal, should be a reassuring sight for petro-nations dealing with the uncertainty of a new global climate deal.

Against the backdrop of the Paris conference, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, with its talk of production quotas and barrels per day, may feel like an anachronism, a relic of 20th century environmental arrogance, but as events in Alberta have just shown, the sun still isn't close to setting on the world's oil powers.

Undoubtedly, the timing of the two gatherings, 1,200 kilometres apart, is symbolically rich. The watchwords of Paris, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon costs, must certainly represent the future if the world is to avoid the worst of what climate change has in store.

Low-hanging fruit

And yet, there is OPEC, still gathering as it does ever year at this time, pumping on, like a boat against the current, standing in for the past.

The tension between the existing oil economy and a new greener planet will need to be resolved at some point, but before that happens, global oil producers can rest somewhat easier knowing the fight against climate change will pluck as much low-hanging fruit as it can before tackling oil.

"[OPEC] has gotten to the point now where they recognize that climate change is real, the negatives are moving forward, there will be increasingly stringent climate policies throughout the world, and those are going to have the effect of reducing demand for their products," said Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University.

"There will be profound changes, but the profound changes will come first for coal — everything else will come later."

Coal suffers first

Safe to say that Big Oil luminaries such as Suncor's Steve Williams, Cenovus's Brian Ferguson, and Canadian Natural Resources' Murray Edwards would have been less willing to share the stage with Notley as she unveiled a new provincial carbon tax if Alberta's climate plan were as tough on oil as it is on coal.

Oil didn't get away unscathed, but compared with coal — which Alberta is trying to phase out of the energy mix by 2030 — the economic fallout of the carbon tax is relatively minor.

For most oilsands producers, for instance, the new carbon plan will add less than a dollar per barrel to costs, according to figures from Calgary investment bank First Energy Capital.

A look at the carbon reduction plans, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, that countries filed to the United Nations ahead of the Paris talks, shows that Alberta isn't the only jurisdiction that's focusing efforts to cut emissions in areas other than oil.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna took part in the UN climate change conference in Paris. (CBC News)

Canada's submission, for instance, emphasizes the electricity sector, and the work that will be done by getting off coal, as well as contributions from investing in clean technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and renewable energy.

Commitments to further boost fuel efficiency standards, which will raise gasoline costs, will certainly affect the oil industry, but, much like Alberta's pending carbon tax, it's not like the added expense will be enough to spur drivers to give up the keys to the minivan anytime soon.

The U.S. plan is similarly peppered with mentions of fuel efficiency standards, especially for heavy-duty vehicles, as well as more stringent energy conservation standards for buildings and appliances.

Even more telling, perhaps, of what climate change initiatives to come out of Paris will mean for oil is the submission from Saudi Arabia, which plans to meet its commitments through a mix of energy efficiency, renewable energy contributions, and CCS, as well as a move towards more natural gas-fired power generation. Key to achieving these ambitions, the Kingdom says, is a "robust contribution from oil export revenues to the national economy."

Global oil demand rising

"Yes, you've got the climate talks, and something is going to change, but I don't think oil is suddenly going to bend down in the next couple of years and you'll see demand decrease," said Jamie Webster, senior director of global oil markets at consultancy IHS Inc. "That's a couple of decades away."

Even with the new policies expected to come out of Paris, the International Energy Agency still sees global oil demand, which saw a healthy increase this year to around 95 million barrels a day, climbing to more than 103 million barrels a day by 2040.

Against that backdrop, it's understandable why OPEC would take a business-as-usual approach to its semi-annual gathering — regardless of what's being discussed in Paris.

Given the Saudis' pursuit of market share at the expense of price, this week's meeting is expected to be even more fractious than usual, as OPEC members like Venezuela urge the Kingdom to relent on its strategy.

The prospect of more Iranian barrels coming to market next year will also be top of mind for the group. When the smoke clears, though, the gathering isn't expected to produce any substantive changes for oil markets. For OPEC, that's the short term.

Climate considerations will eventually force global oil producers — from OPEC to Canada — to confront the long term. Just not yet.


Paul Haavardsrud writes for CBC's western business desk in Calgary. He is also a producer on CBC Radio’s national business desk where he talks about business on Radio One in the afternoons. Prior to that he worked for newspapers. On Twitter, he’s @paulhaavardsrud.


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