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Zombie climate change denial: we’re in the “bargaining” stage

The fossil fuel industry is moving away from outright denial, and towards negotiating for their version of an energy transition.

June 29, 2023

3-minute read

If we were to view the history of the oil industry and climate change as moving through the stages of grief, we might say the industry is currently in the “bargaining” stage.

After years of funding denial of climate change and lashing out at its critics, the industry now wants to make a deal. The deal is that if we adopt their version of energy transition, they promise to finally make real progress towards reducing emissions.

Certainly, any claim that we should now trust the very same industry that has actively obstructed ambitious climate action for the past three decades should warrant suspicion.

And such suspicion is certainly warranted, because if we look at the supposed “solutions” the oil industry is pitching to combat climate change, we will find that they are of dubious efficacy in reducing carbon emissions and they have the curious feature of prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels.

The oil industry’s most favoured solution to its emissions problem is Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS). Every oil company that has made a net-zero promise is relying on CCUS to meet that promise to some extent.

Of course, what the industry forgets to mention in these pledges is that they are confined only to upstream emissions from the exploration and production of oil and gas. The actual burning of oil and gas in cars and homes—what is known as Scope 3 emissions and constitute up to 80 per cent of the total emissions of using oil and gas—is someone else’s problem.

The other pertinent fact that industry advocates for CCUS often neglect is that much of the carbon captured in these projects is used to flood older oilfields in order to extract even more oil.

Yet even though the oil industry is betting on CCUS to prolong its existence in a low-carbon world, it is loath to pay for it itself. Indeed, despite recording billions in profits, Canada’s oil industry is asking the public to pay 75 per cent of the costs to build CCUS facilities for the oil industry. That’s billions of dollars in public subsidies for a wildly profitable private industry that could be directed to proven and effective emission reduction strategies.

To a large extent, oil industry net-zero pledges also rely on the idea of carbon offsets. Offsets are supposed to provide the “net” in their “net-zero emissions.” Not through emission reductions in their own operations, but by paying for someone else to reduce or sequester carbon—most popularly through the planting of trees.

For example, Shell Oil’s pathway to net zero includes the ample use of carbon offsets, so much so that they will need to plant a forest the size of the nation of Brazil to offset their own emissions.

However, the practicality of Shell’s plan (and other oil companies) has been rendered all the more suspect due to the increasing recognition that many of these offset schemes are not actually reducing emissions.

An investigation of Verra, the world’s leading carbon standard for the rapidly growing ($2 billion) voluntary offsets market, has found that more than 90 per cent of their rainforest offset credits—among the most commonly used by companies—are likely to be phantom credits and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.

Last in the industry’s arsenal or dubious climate actions is the promise of hydrogen. Industry and governments have been heavily promoting hydrogen as a next-generation, carbon-free fuel that can power cars, homes and power plants.

Except the only truly zero-emission hydrogen is “green hydrogen” which is made by electrolyzing water. But the energy used for this process must be via renewable energy. If it simply uses electrical power generated by fossil fuels, it cannot be in any sense considered zero-emission.

Rather, what the industry is hoping you don’t know is that their proposals are often for “grey” hydrogen, which is produced using natural gas and can generate as much carbon as burning a gallon of gasoline.

Some industry advocates counter that they will capture and sequester the carbon used to produce hydrogen, making it carbon neutral.

And so, we come full circle. The industry is effectively asking us to rely on one dubious technology that relies on this other dubious technology so we can continue to produce more fossil fuels.

But these are not solutions to climate change, they are solutions to the existential threat that the industry recognizes from real climate action. They are another delay tactic that will prolong our reliance on fossil fuels at a time when we should be making every effort to wean ourselves off of fossil energy.

The Canadian oil industry is bargaining that you won’t notice the difference.

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