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Digging in the oil sands stripping

Have some of the oil sands companies made significant progress in reducing carbon emissions, as the Alberta government said?

It depends on how you define “important.” Jules Bergerson, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary, told me that she had seen a decrease in the carbon density – the amount of greenhouse gases released per unit of energy extracted – in a range of 15 percent to 20 percent.

The companies themselves reported that they had made big cuts. Cenovus told me in a statement that the density of greenhouse gases had decreased by 30 percent in 15 years. Sunkor said in a statement that emissions intensity at its primary oil sands plant had fallen more than 60 percent since 1990.

But Dr. Bergerson added that the cuts on the scale that we have seen so far will not necessarily change the minds of investors in leaving the oil sands because they are still leaving most of these projects well above the global average of carbon intensity. As she put it, these companies are “really trying, putting their money in place in terms of developing new technologies.” She said, however, it remains unclear whether they will be able to cut emissions enough to persuade other investors not to leave.

How willing are people in the Canadian industry and financial community to talk to you?

I was surprised by the difficulty of urging Canadian investors and oil sands companies to speak to me. Aside from Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, none of the large pension funds approved my requests for interviews. Likewise, the largest oil sand company rejected my request for interviews, although some agreed to answer written questions.

When I mentioned this to the people I spoke to, many of whom asked not to be identified, the explanation was that no one wanted to be the next person to be targeted by the Prime Minister’s Office. I was asking Mr. Kenny about that, but his office refused my request for an interview.

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