Early in the morning on Sept. 18, the first full day of the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary, the hall was largely empty. Volunteers and security far outnumbered the delegates in the cavernous BMO Centre on the edge of downtown. Exhibitors stood around waiting for someone to talk to, or warming up the many espresso machines meant to lure crowds to their booths. In one case, a woman walked with outstretched arms, counting steps while trying to balance on a line made by carpet seams.  

That balancing act was the first taste of the actual theme that permeates the congress. The official theme of the massive gathering of oil and gas companies, politicians, executives and workers from around the world is “Energy Transition: The Path to Net Zero,” suggesting a sort of map to some inevitable green future. But as the event wraps up today, it’s clear that the way is far from steady for those who control our energy systems. 

Everyone, if it’s to be believed, wants the same thing. Decarbonization, net-zero emissions at some point in the future (despite disagreements on the timing), investments in all manner of technologies — proven or hoped for — are on the lips of ministers from Libya, advisors from Saudi Arabia, executives from the United States and, yes, even a certain premier in Alberta. 

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But moving forward with all of those hopes and dreams is contingent on forces of progress and resistance, balance sheets and shareholders, the very real limitations of technology and the speed with which a global energy system designed around hydrocarbons can shift. Not to mention the political will and policy designs of leaders.

The reasons for resisting a transition are many — a lack of energy and development in large areas of the world, the need for secure energy following the start of the war in Ukraine, the cries of multi-billion-dollar multinationals about the cost burden and the insistence of political leaders on the long-term need for fossil fuels as a part of the global energy mix.

The night before that solitary seam walk on the exhibition floor, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and federal Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson laid bare the political divisions that exist in Canada. During her introductory speech to the congress Smith denounced Wilkinson for talking about the very theme of the gathering — the nuts and bolts of transition — while also promising a reduction in emissions without a drop in production. 

A woman walks along the seam of two carpets on the floor of the World Petroleum Congress
The crowds were thin early on the first full day of the World Petroleum Congress and those on the floor passed the time before crowds arrived. The congress, one of the largest gatherings of its kind, was focused on the energy transition, a fine balancing act for companies focused on fossil fuels. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

In panel after panel on the days that follow, more nuanced and complex conversations demonstrate the tension that extends beyond the purview of lawmakers. 

Mere weeks after the smoke cleared from a city and province choked by wildfires all summer, the gathering marks a point in time for an industry that has ushered in a standard of living beyond the dreams of any who preceded us, and wreaked havoc on a global scale that threatens not just that standard, but our survival.

“There are many out there who think they have the answer,” Peter Tertzakian, managing director of Arc Financial and deputy director of Arc Energy Research Institute, told a crowd on the second day of the congress.

“I would debate them vigorously. We don’t know what is around the corner. We don’t know what the forces of policy, the forces of technology, the forces of capital markets and business and economy are going to do — what’s going to be economically viable and what isn’t, to take us to that state. But we know there is an imperative to achieve a net-zero state.”

On the floor at the World Petroleum Congress, lots of tech promises and little talk of climate change

Many on the floor of the congress hope to be at least some part of that foggy future. One methane hunter displaying his technology says he can’t talk on the record about how many leaks his team finds while searching through southern Alberta, but it’s a lot. 

There is plenty of industry advocacy too. The American Petroleum Institute, which has long pushed back against an energy transition, and the Alberta-government-funded advocacy organization the Canadian Energy Centre — perhaps better known as the War Room — are both here. 

The Canadian Energy Centre booth at the World Petroleum Congress with two people talking behind a display
The advocacy organization Canadian Energy Centre is funded by the Alberta government. Often referred to as the War Room, it was one of a handful of oil and gas lobby groups at the World Petroleum Congress. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Narwhal

So too is the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the largest oil and gas advocacy organization in the country, offering free nitrogen cold brew coffee for those who stop by, served in front of a logo surrounded by plastic clovers. 

The Pathways Alliance, a group of the five largest oilsands producers in Alberta, is set up at a sprawling space complete with locally made ice cream. The group says it aims to make its operations net zero by 2050 and is trying to attract more support for its enormous dream of carbon capture and storage.

That said, some of the largest local producers opted not to show up in any formal way, including Canadian Natural Resources, TC Energy and Shell. 

For all the display of technology — sensors and an artificial intelligence system trained to sniff out methane emissions, technologies to capture carbon and keep it in the ground — there is little to no mention of climate change, even as the price of a barrel hovers around an exceedingly profitable $90 and the full impacts of the climate crisis have come into sharp focus.  

The petroleum congress is all about promise, focusing only on the means by which companies and countries will bring down emissions in a way that continues to provide energy but also brings profit. 

At the Saudi Arabian pavilion, the largest spread at the congress, slick digital presentations and virtual reality headsets tell the story of the world’s largest oil producer and its shifts toward lower  emissions. 

The kingdom wants 50 per cent of its electricity to come from renewables by 2030, mostly solar, with the rest coming from natural gas. It is investing in carbon capture and storage, hoping to tuck the emissions under volcanic rocks in western Saudi Arabia. 

Men wearing keffiyehs look on as the Saudi energy minister tours the kingdom's pavillion at the World Petroleum Congress
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its companies had the largest exhibition space at the World Petroleum Congress. At the centre is the Saudi energy minister, touring through slick presentations about the country’s plan for moving to cleaner technologies. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

Mark Brown, the interim CEO of uODS, a company connected to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which is developing technology to reduce sulphur from shipping emissions, says the capture technology could be used to remove that pollutant and store it. But the long-term goal of the capture, storage and cleaning process is to remove harmful emissions from more than just fossil fuels.

“We could burn tires, waste, even bodies,” he says.

“That was my joke,” his colleague replies. 

Industry says climate policy is working against it being more green 

Away from the plush grey carpet and digital displays of the Saudi pavilion, the kingdom’s oil minister leaned heavily into the other side of the balancing act, pushing back against transitioning too fast and arguing there is a strong need for continued fossil fuels to, among other things, fund a shift to a greener future. 

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud also called out the International Energy Agency for suggesting peak oil demand will happen within the next decade. 

“They have moved from being a forecaster and assessor of the market to one practicing political advocacy,” he said to a large crowd on Sunday night.

He wasn’t alone in pushing back against forecasts that show a transition is well and truly underway, or against the means and pace of getting there. Exxon’s executive chair and CEO Darren Woods told the congress the transition will take time. Alberta’s Smith, who has long advocated for the province’s oil and gas industry, lost no opportunity to pitch it as an ethical choice for the world’s last barrel. 

Three people on chairs on a stage under a large World Petroleum Congress banner.
Kendall Dilling, centre, president of the Pathways Alliance, takes part in a panel discussion at the World Petroleum Congress. The alliance consists of the five largest oilsands producers in Alberta and its plan to make its operations net zero by 2050 is centred on a massive carbon capture, utilization and storage scheme that will require billions in investments. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Narwhal

During a panel with Libya’s minister of oil and gas and Indonesia’s director general of oil and gas — both of whom praised the premier — Smith said climate activists should do a victory lap, suggesting the push for climate change mitigation has succeeded.

“The question will be, having met the challenge, let’s move on to figuring out the pragmatic pathway,” she told a supportive crowd, adding that it was time to pay attention to other issues, including cleaning up sites left polluted for decades. “We’ve got lots of other environmental issues we’ve got to deal with.”

Despite the political and corporate resistance to change, there is also plenty of nuance taking place inside the congress rooms. 

Alongside reluctance to embrace renewables as a panacea for a green future, there is talk about the potential of cleaner and more equitable energy security and industrial development in the global south with the use of solar, wind, storage and more. 

But it’s the challenges of transition that come up again and again — whether sincere or not. 

A panel about regulations in Canada echoed an argument made throughout the congress: layered and confusing policy is hampering industry and governments in moving forward. 

“The clean fuel regulation took six years to put into place,” David Schick, vice-president of western Canada innovation and regulatory affairs for the Canadian Fuels Association, said.

Industry thought it could finally get to work making things happen, he said, but “implementation of that policy is being challenged by new policies that are being brought on stream that challenge the investment decisions that we’re needing to make in the near term.”

Two people stand with virtual reality goggles on at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary
Delegates use virtual reality headsets at the Saudi pavilion, which takes viewers on a tour of the kingdom’s oil and gas fields and factories and provides a vision for a net zero future. Saudi Arabia wants to have 50 per cent of its electricity produced by renewables by 2030, with the other half coming from natural gas. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Narwhal

This is, after all, private industry. It likes consistency and certainty, even in a time of political, social and climate turmoil. “It’s just very chaotic, it’s not an impossible system,” Tertzakian said at his talk on transition in Alberta. “It’s just that you have to factor in so many other things and you have to think clearly. As I tell people, as an investor, there’s no dividend for being emotional about it.”

Transitioning to net zero is an expensive endeavour and convincing investors to pour funds into a new business model can be a tough sell, even if the payoffs are there. 

A recent report from McKinsey & Company shows returns on investment really show up when a company’s portfolio passes a 40 per cent threshold on low carbon investments but that major oil and gas companies typically invest less than 25 per cent into new energy streams.

“And I think in Canada, it’s actually much lower than that at this point,” Alison Cretney, managing director of the Calgary-based Energy Futures Lab said on another panel. “So what that tells me is that there is an opportunity there to be bold.”

Some countries don’t have access to reliable energy and electricity and argue they can’t transition away from cheap and easy fossil fuels, while some western countries are at least bending the curve on emissions. Decreasing emissions isn’t the case in Canada.

It certainly isn’t true in Alberta, where emissions have grown by 55 per cent since 1990 and 19 per cent since 2005. Through the congress, the province hammers home the point that it needs the federal government to sync regulations with Alberta. That would mean holding off on new announcements while the two governments negotiate through a recently created working group to discuss emissions and energy transitions.

Three women pose in front of a latte with their images printed in the foam
Delegates pose with a latte that has an image of them printed in the milk foam from the Exxon/Imperial Oil pavilion. The gimmick was popular with delegates, a standout among the many offerings trying to lure people to booths and pavilions. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Narwhal

It all leads to a paradox, particularly for Canada. 

On one hand, the industry and governments promote the country as a more “ethical” energy choice because it has higher environmental and regulatory standards and less instability and corruption than many other oil-producing nations. On the other, those same boosters argue those very standards, and the messy give-and-take of confederation, are handcuffing industry and scaring away investors. 

Chris Severson-Baker, executive director of the Pembina Institute, says some of the blame for the so-called policy pancake — one stacked on top of another on top of another — is the effectiveness of the oil and gas industry lobbying against regulation.

“Because you get so much pushback for certain things, that particular policy issue doesn’t quite go far enough, so you need another layer added on top of that to get you a little bit further,” he says. 

“So the tactics that the oil and gas lobby groups have taken have actually resulted in this complex policy environment that they now find themselves in.”

An empty feeling inside and outside the World Petroleum Congress

Calgary’s downtown bars aren’t overflowing with oil and gas revelers and hotel lobbies are quiet. There is no petro-fuelled party despite the number of visitors here. The crowd roaming the halls are not the brash youth of the industry and the tone is serious. 

There is also a conspicuous lack of protest. There was one on Sunday night as Smith traded barbs with Wilkinson inside. A small gathering also appeared on Monday carrying signs, but it didn’t register inside the halls. 

Those who attended the Canada Night celebration on Tuesday say the crowd thinned out after the rodeo and before a performance by Cirque du Soleil, who have set up shop nearby for a run of their show Kooza. 

The sprawling exhibition floor of the congress was busy with delegates stopping at booth and pavilions or on their way to a constant stream of panels and talks at the BMO Centre in downtown Calgary. There were plenty of companies on hand, but many large Canadian producers weren’t formally represented on the exhibition floor. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Narwhal.

Outside of certain social bubbles, it would be easy to be unaware the event was taking place at all, despite its billing as one of the largest oil and gas conferences in the world. For some, that feeling of emptiness is fitting for a week of talks that were supposed to be centred on net zero and transition, but often failed to truly tackle that daunting task. 

“I think it’s falling well short of that tagline,” Severson-Baker says of the conference theme.

“If you’re really serious about getting to that zero by 2050, then I think you have to recognize that you need to do a lot of work in the first 10 years.”

Severson-Baker says too much of the conversation seemed to be about long-term, expensive solutions that could be in place by 2050, rather than doubling down on proven technologies now. 

There is little certainty in the current world, seemingly stuck in feedback loops of social unrest, climate chaos, political upheaval and financial strain. It can create a sense of helplessness in those outside the boardrooms, contributing to increased polarization and reactivity.

The congress has shown those same feelings are present inside the boardrooms: polarization, but also an inability to determine what the future holds and what returns it will bring, often making leaders afraid or unwilling to act with any urgency.

That sort of paralysis will only delay a global shift to net zero.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

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