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What Canada’s major media are forgetting when they report on oil

Uncritical coverage of industry projections means climate change is left out of the picture

When the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) released its 2018 oil outlook, which predicts major production growth to 2035, there was one major detail no one seemed to notice.

The projections assume a world where future emissions don’t stay within the climate limits set in the goals of the Paris Agreement. Not by a long shot.*

CAPP based its projections on a survey of Canadian oil producers in the first quarter of 2018.**

The Globe and Mail, CBC, and Canadian Press (published in Global and the National Post) covered the report, but not a single one of them took even a sentence or two to remind readers that CAPP’s projections assume a future reality of a fried planet.

“CAPP definitely got their message out across Canada, without much critical analysis,” University of Regina journalism professor Patricia Elliott told The Narwhal.

She added Chris Varcoe of the Calgary Herald provided a few analytical comments about the need to diversify the industry, “but he was talking about diversified oil markets, not diversified energy sources.”

“From my experience,” Elliott said, “it’s not that reporters don’t want to cover the industry more closely. The stories are tough and require a lot of extra research to get it right — you don’t want to make a mistake with a high-stakes issue.”

Poor staffing of newsrooms makes it especially difficult to do this kind of reporting, she said.

“If I was an editor, I would assign a climate beat, like The Guardian has done, and have business reporters take workshops on covering climate change as a business story, including industry accountability. The economic implications of earth’s changing climate are major, and there’s just not enough reporting work that holds power to account when disasters strike.”

So just what did CAPP announce?

CAPP said it expects to see a jump from the 4.2 million barrels per day of oil produced today in Canada to 5.6 million by 2035 — an increase of 33 per cent.

The bulk of the growth CAPP forecasts would come from expanded oilsands extraction, which the industry group expects to increase 60 per cent by 2035.

The expanded production relies on three pipelines being built to move more bitumen: TransCanada’s Keystone XL to the south, Enbridge’s Line 3 to the southeast and, of course, the soon-to-be Canadian government’s Trans Mountain pipeline to the B.C. West Coast.

That part of the story was widely reported. The Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald had staff writers on it, while many others, including CTV, Global, Toronto Star, Financial Post, National Observer and others published coverage put together by the Canadian Press.

But none of the articles name climate change, emissions or carbon.

The Canadian Press, in a piece of longer coverage published by several outlets, did include a quote from Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart aimed at the oil industry: “The harsh truth that they need to face is that in 2035 we won’t be buying what they are selling, and that’s a good thing if we want our kids to inherit a livable planet.”

But that’s as far as the topic was explored.

Why didn’t media tell the full story?

How every major media outlet in Canada forget to mention the climate implications of a 60 per cent increase in oilsands production by 2035 is anybody’s guess.

But when it comes to quantifying just how pervasive the problem is, at least one individual is trying.

Elliott did a search of major Canadian daily publications in June using the ProQuest database and found 54 articles that mentioned climate change and CAPP.

“Most were just a straight summary of CAPP president Tim McMillan’s speech at the Global Petroleum Show, where he laid out the association’s forecasts,” Elliott says.

For example, the article by the CBC, whose newsrooms have experienced extensive cuts, is composed entirely by paraphrasing and quoting CAPP and its CEO Tim McMillan.

Eighteen of the articles Elliot found linked CAPP’s forecasts to climate change.

But they almost exclusively framed CAPP’s forecasts in terms of the cost of climate action for industry — parroting “CAPP’s claim that it will cost $25 billion to meet carbon reduction targets,” Elliot said.

In terms of media shaping political attitudes, Simon Dalby, professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said “it is often their agenda-setting function that is more important than the detailed reportage of particular issues.”

The standard narrative of economic prosperity based on resource sector jobs, “forecloses serious political discussion of alternative economic strategies and the huge injustices that resource extraction involves,” Dalby told The Narwhal.

“The problem is expectations of rising oil prices in the long term and rising oilsands production are just not consistent with Canada (and the world’s) goal to maintain a liveable climate,” says Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Seattle office.

“That points to the role for the media to point out the inconsistency, indeed the double-speak, of any industry that claims to be contributing to climate stability while in fact it is betting on the opposite and further locking in a fossil fuel based economy. ”

The Globe and Mail, which recently downsized its paper publication, ran a story with no mention of climate by long-time energy reporter Shawn McCarthy. McCarthy has covered climate implications of the industry previously and since.

Asked why climate was omitted this time, McCarthy told The Narwhal by e-mail, “If I had had more space, I could have spent some time describing the difference between industry expectations of continued growth — whether based on IEA scenario or the broad assumption about growing middle class in emerging markets like India and China — and contrasted that with the carbon imperative.”

So, what are the climate implications of CAPP’s forecast?

Over the course of 2017, the Alberta oilsands produced one billion barrels of oil. CAPP anticipates that figure will grow 60 per cent during the next two decades.

A recent CAPP report, Canada’s Role in the Global Energy Mix, reveals the industry group’s singular line of thought: “The world’s thirst for energy is on the rise and Canada has an opportunity to meet the growing global demand for energy…”

To justify this, CAPP selectively based its forecast on a scenario put forward by the International Energy Agency (IEA) — one of the world’s most influential sources of industry information — in its 2017 World Energy Outlook.

Oil Change International and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis calculate that the scenario would bring about warming of around 2.8 to 3.3 degrees Celsius — far above the threshold of 2 degrees scientists have set as an upper limit.

The centrepiece of the world’s 2015 Paris Accord (which, it’s worth pointing out, is non-binding) is an ambition to limit an increase in global temperatures to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible.

Interestingly, the IEA produced two other scenarios that assume a more rapid reduction in global emissions. Both of these scenarios would see oil production decrease significantly from today. In its forecasting for Canada, CAPP disregards these alternative scenarios.

Canada has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a Harper government commitment that was reaffirmed by the Trudeau government in late 2015. This amounts to a drop down to 524 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent a year.

Keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming would require a reduction to 400 Mt by 2030.

Beyond this, Canada has committed to an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050, a goal that would limit annual emissions 150 Mt.

Should the oilsands grow as CAPP predicts, that one industry  would eat up 22 per cent of Canada’s total emissions in 2030 and a staggering 78 per cent of allowable emissions in 2050.

That puts a lot of pressure on Canada’s other economic sectors to eliminate their emissions almost entirely. In the absence of that, Canada’s climate targets will be incredibly difficult to meet.

* Update August 16, 2018 8:22am pst: We’ve adjusted this paragraph to state CAPP’s projections assume emissions won’t stay within the climate limits set in the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is to recognize the disparity between the Paris Agreement’s own goal of limiting temperature increases as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible and the targets of member countries that, to this point, are insufficient to meet that goal. Further on this point, CAPP wrote to The Narwhal to say it is incorrect to state projections contained in the 2018 forecast “assume in any way a world where future emissions don’t stay within the climate limits set in the Paris Agreement.” However, this is at best debatable. We reached out to Greg Muttitt, research director at Oil Change International, who put it plainly: “There is no realistic scenario in which there is demand for expanded tar sands production while the world achieves the Paris goals, as numerous studies have shown. Whether Canada’s share of production share is determined by territorial emissions limits, market competition, economic efficiency or supply-side equity, achieving the Paris goals means no new tar sands. To my knowledge, CAPP has never addressed the question of what the energy world would look like for the goals to be achieved, and how that would affect Canadian production.”

** Update August 14, 2018 1:02pm pst: CAPP’s 2018 crude oil forecast relied on a survey of oilsands producers, not the International Energy Agency’s “New Policies Scenario” as previously reported. CAPP’s report, Canada’s Role in the Global Energy Mix, relies on the IEA’s new policies scenario.

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