Nfld. & Labrador

Oil industry at risk of 'losing the battle' to climate change activists, warns Roger Grimes

Former Liberal premier Roger Grimes, the current chair of Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil regulator, said the oil industry should be just as vocal as people like Greta Thunberg.

Chair of C-NLOPB said climate change opinions need to be 'tempered' for industry to survive

Grenfell Campus students are seen at the #FridaysforFuture march in Corner Brook, N.L., last month. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A former premier and the current head of Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil regulator told a room of oil industry representatives Thursday to be just as loud as people like Greta Thunberg to ensure it's not only young people controlling the message around climate change.

Roger Grimes, chair of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, said the climate change issue was "almost dominating" debates during the federal election, and he wanted to encourage the industry to be vocal — just as Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, has done.

"She speaks very passionately and she's convinced that leaders like me, in the 20 years that I was at it, made some decisions that have endangered the very planet on which she lives," Grimes said, "and that somebody else better start doing things a bit differently or there's not gonna be a similar type of planet for her to grow up in."

Thunberg has been making her way across parts of Canada, holding climate strike rallies as part of the youth-propelled #FridaysforFuture movement. One hundred and fifty countries have so far taken part in such strikes. She is set to speak at a rally Friday in Vancouver, with thousands expected to attend.

Don't lose the ground to people who want to say, 'If you keep doing this you're going to destroy the planet.'- Roger Grimes

Her North American trip started last month, when Thunberg opened the United Nations Climate Action Summit with an angry condemnation of world leaders for failing to take strong measures to combat climate change.

Grimes made his comments at a conference sponsored in part by the Exploits Regional Chamber of Commerce in central Newfoundland, during a seminar to talk about oil and gas potential in the region. 

He said the teenager's message is a risk for the oil industry.

"In 20 years she'll be in this room, someone just like her will sit in this room and be in a leadership role," he said, adding that the industry should push for a collaborative approach with oil industry and climate change activists.

Former Liberal premier and current C-NLOPB chair Roger Grimes spoke about the oil industry at the seminar on Thursday. (Melissa Tobin/CBC)

"Don't lose the ground to people who want to say, 'If you keep doing this, you're going to destroy the planet.'"

'They're gonna be running the place'

Grimes made multiple comments on Thunberg's age, adding that the majority of climate change activists seem to be from the younger generation.

"Put 20 years on them and what are they, 40? They're gonna be running this place, folks. They're gonna be running the place," he said. "Unless the message has been tempered and developed and moderated and everybody understands there can be balance, then there's a real fear of losing the battle to it."

Grimes didn't detail how he believed fossil fuels can be developed in an environmentally responsible way while meeting federally set carbon emission reduction targets. But he said companies have been working to "recapture carbon outputs, emissions, they do all kinds of things to diminish the footprint." Exactly what those steps are wasn't specified.

The C-NLOPB has a mandate to oversee offshore operators in Newfoundland and Labrador, and ensure they comply with development regulations, according to its website.

Grimes, a former Liberal premier, was appointed to the chair position in July.

Thousands marched from Memorial University to Confederation Building in St. John's last month as part of a global climate strike. (Renee Ryan/Twitter)

"I don't mind telling people personally I am a champion, I always have been, in my public life, my political life and now as an individual, of 'Let's develop,'" Grimes said.

"But we got to do it sensibly, you got to do it practically, you got to do it in an environmentally proper fashion, you got to do it safely. You got to do all those things, but let's focus our energies on finding ways to do it."

The provincial government unveiled a plan in 2018 to double its offshore oil production by 2030. The industry is also preparing for an increase in oil exploration activity, with oil companies committed to spending $4 billion in their searches by 2024.

'Don't ignore them'

In his speech at the conference this week, which was delivered to representatives from the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association, Nalcor and the C-NLOPB, among others, Grimes also pointed to this year's inaugural Decarbonize N.L. conference as another indicator of young people turning away from offshore and oil development.

"The whole premise of the conference was, Can we have a Newfoundland and Labrador in which we don't produce anything related to carbon?" he said, adding that N.L. has 90 per cent public support for the oil industry.

Oil production at the Hibernia platform in Newfoundland's offshore could soon be expanded with the addition of subsea drilling centres. (HMDC)

"Guess who they were, by the way? They were largely university students and young entrepreneurs in their mid-20s. Put 20 years on them, they're 45 years old. I'm telling you, they're gonna be in rooms like this, they're gonna be running the province and running the country."

This is a huge praise to the organizers of the climate march because they've caught people's attention.- Brett Favaro

Grimes said he wanted to encourage the industry officials to engage in conversations, in an effort to bring climate activists on board.

"Don't ignore them, engage with them. Educate. Make sure that everybody understands — and I'll say it one more time — everybody needs to understand that it's not an either-or proposition," he said, adding there's a way to develop the offshore's economic potential while balancing environmental concerns.

"You can [develop] and save the planet at the same time." Grimes didn't specify how both can be accomplished simultaneously. 

Thunberg and other climate strike rally organizers have repeatedly asked political and industry leaders to defer to scientific reports from groups like the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

'Huge praise' for protesters

Conservation biologist Brett Favaro, one of the organizers of the Decarbonize N.L. conference, said people like Grimes are more than welcome — encouraged, even — to take part in conversations about how to pivot industries.

"We're not painting this as us versus them. We would love to work with the oil and gas sector," Favaro said, adding that one of the groups involved is Iron and Earth East, an organization of former oil and gas workers now looking into renewable energy opportunities.

Favaro said that the idea of carbon emission reduction "may be offensive to someone who's dedicated their lives to producing more" in the oil and gas sector, but the science and reports from the IPCC speak for themselves.

Delia Warren of Iron and Earth East, and Brett Favaro, a fisheries scientist, are two of the organizers of the Decarbonize N.L. conference. (Kenny Sharpe/CBC)

"What we're advocating for — people who are advocating for the future of the planet — is to actually advocate for new industries and new opportunities that can build that world that we all deserve and make us all prosperous along the way," he said, adding that how we meet the IPCC targets isn't important, just that we do it.

"How are we going to double oil and gas production while decreasing energy from oil by 37 per cent by 2030?"

As for the climate strike protests and the #FridaysforFuture movement, Favaro said this kind of feedback from someone like Grimes is productive.

"I actually think this is a huge praise to the organizers of the climate march because they've caught people's attention, and this is a conversation that is gonna have to keep happening," he said.

"I guess my message to the young people is: what you're doing is working — and do it more."

Economic activity beyond the Avalon

Meanwhile, another topic of discussion at the seminar this week was how the central Newfoundland region can be a part of the province's push to double oil and gas production.

Scott Sceviour, the mayor of Botwood and the chair of the Exploits Valley Port Corporation, said that would include constructing a new wharf, as well as a multi-functional facility for processing.

Sceviour said it would bring a lot of economic activity to the whole area.

Jamie Felsberg and Angelica Vincent, two young people from Labrador, were among the thousands of protesters at the massive Montreal climate strike in September. (Submitted by Jamie Felsberg)

"It's all good news for not just Botwood, but for the whole Exploits Valley and the central Newfoundland region, because we need to get more things outside of the Avalon," he said.

He added that he's not heard from anyone opposed to the project due to climate change concerns, and it's something that is indeed on his mind.

"Everybody's cognizant of the issues that we have. It's just being brought to light right now [because] it's a very strong voice that's being brought up — and I think rightfully so," he said.

"But I do believe everybody's trying to do their part. It just reinforces the fact that we need to do a little bit more. We need to bring economic activity, and not at all costs, but we'll do our part. That don't mean that we turn it away, either."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC's Melissa Tobin and Chris O'Neill-Yates

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