Cenovus aims for 'net zero' GHG emissions by 2050

Oilsands producer Cenovus pledges to cut per-barrel emissions amid growing scrutiny of Canada's oilpatch and its environmental legacy.

Oilsands producer pledges to cut per-barrel emissions amid growing scrutiny of Canada's oilpatch

Five large grey and silver steam generators are pictured at an industrial site against a blue sky.
Steam generators at the Cenovus Foster Creek project in northern Alberta. On Thursday, oilsands producer Cenovus Energy says it's aiming to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — and reclaim hundreds of decommissioned wells sites. (Submitted by Cenovus)

Oilsands producer Cenovus Energy says it's aiming to achieve "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — and reclaim hundreds of decommissioned wells sites — as part of new sustainability targets announced Thursday.

The move comes amid growing scrutiny of Canada's oilpatch and its impact on the environment, from green organizations and also investors.

Calgary-based Cenovus says its plan is to reduce its emissions per barrel by 30 per cent by 2030, while keeping flat its total emissions.

The company says in that time-frame it will also reclaim 1,500 decommissioned well sites, representing three-quarters of its existing well sites that are no longer in use and set for reclamation.

Alex Pourbaix, the company's chief executive officer, says the targets the company has set are intended to "position us to thrive in the transition to a lower-carbon future." 

"I'm confident we have the right business model and talent in place to achieve them," he said in a statement.

But one environmental group says while the announcement reflects the kind of "heat" oil companies are feeling from investors, it doesn't amount to more than a "tweak" of the firm's business plan.

Holding emissions steady when Canada is supposed to cut them doesn't help much, says Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada.

"I liken it to saying the captain of the ship has spotted the iceberg and has pledged to maintain course and speed," he said.

Cenovus's strategy includes a multi-pronged approach including operational optimization, incorporating electricity cogeneration capacity into future oilsands phases, more use of solvent technology to reduce steam needed to produce bitumen, and methane emissions reductions in its conventional drilling operations.

Cenovus says it has reduced its GHG emissions at its oilsands operations by about 30 per cent per barrel over the past 15 years, although higher production means total emissions have increased.

Al Reid, the company's executive vice-president of environment, corporate affairs and legal, says Cenovus's 2050 emissions goals are aspirational but added there is a "path" to reaching them.

"The reason that it's aspirational is we know there's technologies that are in a nascent state today that could allow that to happen," he told CBC News. "But they're not commercial today."

He said the primary example of that would be carbon capture and storage, a process that could stop carbon from entering the atmosphere and then store it underground.

"Those are the kinds of things that we're working on," he said.

Reid said carbon offsets could also be part of both the 2030 and the 2050 plans.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Reid said the company is hopeful that its commitments — which include ramping up spending by $1.5 billion with Indigenous businesses — will help make peace with opponents and allow growth to take place.

Other oilsands producers on-board

This is the latest in a string of oil company announcements about commitments to improve environmental performance.

Fellow oilsands producer Canadian Natural Resources has also pledged to work toward a zero-emissions target, without giving a specific date, using technology and its carbon trapping and storage operations. It says it has lowered emissions per barrel from its oilsands mining operation by 37 per cent since 2012.

In December, Spanish energy giant Repsol, which has operations in Canada, also announced it would try to achieve net zero emissions globally by 2050.

In September, Suncor Energy said it would spend $1.4 billion to install two cogeneration units at its Oil Sands Base Plant in northern Alberta, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent.

Canada's oil and sector is facing greater scrutiny, especially amid growing climate change concerns.

Last fall, Norway's largest pension fund removed four Canadian energy names from its investment list and says it will no longer put money in companies that derive more than five per cent of their revenue from the oilsands.

Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who recently joined the United Nations as a special envoy on climate change and finance, told BBC last month that the financial sector had begun to curb investment in fossil fuels, but far too slowly.

Decarbonizing the economy

Warren Mabee, director of the Queen's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, calls Thursday's announcement a positive sign that Canada's energy sector — and Cenovus in particular — are taking seriously issues around climate change and the need to decarbonize the economy.

"Clearly, there's more and more pressure on these companies to look at their carbon footprint and to start to come up with some real strategies to address those carbon footprints," Mabee told CBC News.

Mabee says he believes the goals Cenovus has laid out are achievable.

If so, those efforts can also help Canada in its bid to reach its Paris agreement goals, he said. The Paris target requires Canada to cut greenhouse gases produced from 730 million tonnes in 2005 to 511 million tonnes in 2030.

"So if we want to achieve that Paris target of a 30 per cent reduction, and if we want to set ourselves up to be able to do even more as we move toward the middle of the century, we need the oil and gas sector, the energy sector, to start coming up with these solutions."

Greenpeace's Stewart said he'd like to hear more companies talk about transitioning out of oil production and into other forms of energy.

"What we should be hearing from Cenovus and from others … is, 'We recognize we need to get out of the oil business. It's not going to happen tomorrow. But we have to start planning for it now. And we have to start shifting our investments in that direction,'" Stewart said.

Senior analyst Benjamin Israel of the Pembina Institute said Cenovus's commitment is a step in the right direction but the industry needs to say less about emissions intensity and do more to address its absolute emissions.

With files from Canadian Press