Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Low-carbon oil is not a thing, and 'clean, green' technology does not exist

That government is acting in the best interest of oil companies rather than citizens tells you something about where the power lies, writes Lori Lee Oates in a new Opinion column.

Our government is hinging its financial plan on things that do not exist

Author Lori Lee Oates says the concept of low-carbon oil does not address the fact that most of the emissions from oil and gas are downstream, and not produced during extraction. (Nicholas Hillier Photography/Submitted by Lori Lee Oates)

This column is an opinion by Lori Lee Oates, a lecturer living in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On May 6, the premier's economic recovery team released its report, The Big Reset. One of the report's ways to reset Newfoundland and Labrador is the transition to a green economy.

The problem with the provincial government's approach, however, is that it hinges on the notion of "low-carbon oil."

The Oil and Gas Industry Recovery Task Force report states that greenhouse gas emissions in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore industry per barrel are lower than the world average.

It also warns that emissions will increase without development of and investment in clean technology.

The plan is to give our green energy investment money to oil companies to lower the emissions of this supposedly "low-carbon oil." Meeting our global climate commitments under this plan depends on technology that does not yet exist.

Wind and solar power is already here and cheaper than fossil fuel-powered electricity in many parts of the world. However, oil companies would prefer it if government gave the money to them to develop new technology, rather than using already proven technology.

The fact that government is acting in the best interest of oil companies rather than citizens tells you something about where the power lies in this province.

While Canada's energy regulator predicts a steep and steady decline in Newfoundland and Labrador's oil production to complete in 2050 (see task force report page 13), our leaders would like to alter this projection through "improved joint management."

Typically, this means relaxing environmental standards and shortening approval processes.

Most emissions from oil are downstream 

The concept of low-carbon oil also does not address the fact that most of the emissions from oil and gas are downstream.

That is, the vast majority of emissions are not created during the process of taking oil out of the ground. Most are created when we're driving cars or flying on planes or using boats.

The Transocean Barents semi-submersible drill rig is pictured in the Flemish Pass, an area that Newfoundland and Labrador sees as the next frontier for offshore oil development. (Equinor)

For example, the World Resources Institute maintains that only 5.5 per cent of emissions at Hibernia are created during the upstream process.

There will have to be a major shift to electric vehicles this decade to meet climate goals. Indeed, reputable business journalists predict that EVs will soon be the same price as gasoline-powered vehicles. Building more EVs is a major part of the U.S. infrastructure plan.

The government of Canada has programs to support the move to EVs and is funding the building of charging stations across the country.

Oil cannot survive without customers and our country is embarking on a carbon-pricing process that is designed to make people pay for their emissions. Essentially, this will make Canadian oil more expensive to consume.

Furthermore, some of the largest and cheapest fields to operate in the world have similar upstream emissions to Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore fields. They also have lower operating costs.

The business cases for our oil do not look good. Betting our planet, economy and future on carbon capture is a risky venture, to say the least.

This will be about profit, not political stability

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that Canada would be increasing its emission reduction target to 40 per cent below 2005 levels.

However, the federal government is also planning an increase in production of oil. There is a major disconnect between Canada's climate targets and our oil production plan, as Angela Carter pointed out on CBC's What on Earth.

We have known since at least 2015 that a significant proportion of discovered oil reserves will need to stay in the ground in order to meet existing climate targets. That was when we were aiming for 2 C global warming instead of 1.5 C.

Oil companies have never cared about low-carbon oil unless they can use it as a greenwashing tool. They pretend they are acting in environmentally sound ways when really, they are not.

Big oil is also not going to make decisions based on the political stability of nations or their human rights records, as many advocates of the Canadian oil industry want them too.

In reality, the decisions to stop production will be made by big oil when projects become inconvenient. However, they will continue to seek subsidies from our governments because they can no longer depend on profits from production.

That is the biggest clue of all as to where this is going.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Lori Lee Oates


Lori Lee Oates, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the M.Phil. (Humanities) program at Memorial University and has worked in the senior levels of the provincial and federal governments.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?