The oil sands alliance unveils its Pathways Vision

August 24, 2021  |  Impact Net Zero

Image by RJA1988 from Pixabay

Image by RJA1988 from Pixabay

We previously reported on the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero, an alliance of the oil companies Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor with an objective of achieving net zero by 2050. In July the alliance put forth a more detailed plan of how they intend to achieve this, summarized below.

Pathways Vision

The alliance’s stated objective is to reduce emissions from its operations. This will happen in three phases by 2050 for a total reduction of 68 Mt/year relative to current levels:

  1. 22 Mt within 2021-2030;
  2. 25 Mt within 2031-2040;
  3. 21 Mt within 2041-2050.

This plan relies heavily on carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS), which will account for 48.5 Mt/year of reductions. Critics of CCUS say it gives fossil fuels companies an excuse to continue producing with social license.  The proposed project would capture emissions from sites such as Fort McMurray in Alberta and transport them to Cold Lake for underground storage.

There is mention of smaller CCUS projects in Norway (0.8 Mt/year) and the Netherlands (2.5 Mt/year). Given the difference in scale, the alliance’s plan will be an ambitious project and a major undertaking.

While the Pathways document mentions hydrogen and small modular nuclear reactors, it is unclear how big of a role they will play.

The narrative

The Pathways Vision emphasizes the concept of “net zero oil,” with the implication that by achieving net zero operations, it would be environmentally acceptable to continue fossil fuel production. It also emphasizes that “[a]ll internationally recognized forecasts indicate oil will continue to be an essential part of the global diversified energy mix through 2050 and beyond”. This is at odds with the International Energy Agency’s conclusion that fossil fuel production must play a drastically reduced future role for net zero by 2050 to become reality.

Notably, the document never once mentions the words “renewables,” “wind” or “solar,” opting for terms such as “electrification and fuel substitution,” “other levers” or “emerging tech”. Since electrification of transportation through renewable generation presents competition to the current fossil fuel-based system, it is not hard to understand why.

What does all this mean?

The alliance’s objective seems to be achieving net zero operations as an argument for continuing to produce oil while staying vague on the role of competing technologies like renewables, and leaving the door open to hydrogen and nuclear without formally committing to either. This is important to keep in mind when evaluating the Pathways Vision document.

One thing the alliance has committed to is an ambitious level of emissions reductions within a defined time frame, complete with interim targets. While it is not clear how realistic this is or how it will be accomplished, concerned Canadians should track how successful the alliance is at keeping to its commitment, and hold it accountable. Otherwise companies could make big claims to earn social license but without following through.

The Pathways Vision is a long term plan, and the public’s collective memory should be equally long as the interim dates approach. Stay tuned to see what happens next as Impact Net Zero follows this developing story.

Impact Net Zero

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