Canada and Saudi Arabia are partners in climate inaction

Nick Gottlieb
offshore oil rig - Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register

Dec. 1, 2022

During the recent COP27 negotiations, Canada and Saudi Arabia fought against a phaseout of all fossil fuels

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s comprehensive campaign to perpetuate the global fossil fuel economy. It was a grim look at how one of the world’s largest producers of oil is using a diversity of tactics to block meaningful global climate action while simultaneously painting itself as green.

What is perhaps more grim is that nearly every sentence in the piece would hold just as true if you replaced “Saudi Arabia” or “the kingdom” with “Canada.” In perhaps the most indicative example, the Times reported that the “Saudi Ministry of Energy said it expected that hydrocarbons such as oil, gas and coal would ‘continue to be an essential part of the global energy mix for decades.’”

Over the last year or two, the Canadian government has become bold enough to say the exact same thing, going so far as to assert that Canada will—and should—be the main country producing fossil fuels in the latter half of this century.

Last month, in an interview with Bloomberg’s Akshat Rathi, Trudeau said that “Canada is positioned to be the supplier of energy in a net-zero world”—meaning, after 2050.

Earlier this year, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told CBC, “There’s a lot of misconceptions about the role of fossil fuels as we move forward to a lower-carbon future…there are still significant amounts of oil and gas we’re going to use in a net-zero future.”

And of course, Canada’s National Observer reported that the federal government’s justification for its pipeline project—the Trans Mountain Expansion—is based on the assumption that it will be transporting oil from the tar sands to export facilities in Vancouver for 100 years, well into the 22nd century.

During the recent COP27 negotiations, Canada and its partner Saudi Arabia fought against the agreement’s inclusion of language calling for a phaseout of all fossil fuels. They were outliers: even other major petroleum producers like the United States supported that call.

According to the government, Canada changed its position on this near the end of the negotiations, stating that they were willing to support a call for phasing out “unabated” fossil fuels, but in the end, even that vague and all too easily abused language failed to make it into the text.

Canada’s ongoing approval of new fossil fuel projects, including the 12 “carbon bomb” projects I recently reported on and the heavily subsidized major infrastructure being built to facilitate those projects (Coastal GasLink, LNG Canada, and the Trans Mountain Expansion), tells the same story: that Canada intends to grow its fossil fuel production for decades to come and believes it will still be exporting fossil fuels as late as the end of this century.

All this is to say that Canada, just like Saudi Arabia, is doing its best to ensure that it will still be selling fossil fuels to the global market for as long as possible while simultaneously proclaiming itself a climate leader.

As part of this branding exercise, both countries are attempting to claim that their oil industries will be “net zero” by 2050. In Canada, the government and the industry itself are partners in spinning this lie: Canada went so far as hosting a presentation by the Oil Sands Pathways Alliance at COP27. The Oil Sands Pathways Alliance is a lobbying group and marketing exercise formed by six of Canada’s largest oil sands operators that purports to have a plan for the industry to be “net zero” by 2050.

While Trudeau points to the Pathways Alliance as a sign that the industry is a willing partner on climate action, most of its members are simultaneously engaged in both above- and below-board efforts to stymie even the modest steps that his government is working on, such as its proposed emissions cap.

Some Pathways Alliance members, such as Imperial Oil, its parent company Exxon, and Suncor, have been deeply engaged in fighting climate action for half a century. There’s no more reason to believe that these companies are serious about “net zero” than there is to believe that Saudi Aramco is.

But perhaps more importantly, as the Times put it, even “that [net zero] pledge excludes oil’s main source of planet-warming emissions, those produced by burning it.”

Both the Saudis and the Canadians are attempting to sell some kind of fantastical future where everyone is “net zero,” but we’re still burning just as much fossil fuel. To borrow a phrase that Canada’s Liberal pundits like to use whenever someone calls for regulating the production of fossil fuels, that’s “rainbows and butterflies” thinking.

Even if Canada’s oil sands and its nascent but rapidly growing fracked gas industry somehow found their way to “net zero”—an impossible proposition given their lack of any serious intent to try and the fact that the per-barrel emissions of oil sands production has increased in recent years—there is no way that the consumption of that oil will be “net zero.”

Wilkinson has claimed multiple times this year that demand for Canada’s oil towards the end of the century will be for “petrochemicals and waxes and lubricants and hydrogen,” or non-combustive uses, meaning the oil Canada produces won’t be burned.

Ironically enough, 70 percent of “oil feedstock”—the largest of these non-combustive uses—is used to produce plastic, a pollutant Canada claims to be working on dealing with at both domestic and international levels.

Irony aside, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of fossil fuels today are burned. In the United States, where most of Canada’s exported fossil fuels end up, just seven percent of fossil fuel use is non-combustive. The International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook puts the global proportion higher, but still suggests that the entire global demand for petrochemical products in 2050 could be met by the production of a single country today.

Which gets to the core of the issue: Canada, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other petrostates are each attempting to build a future in which they are the last country producing fossil fuels.

If it were just a question of which one of them would win, it would be less of a global problem, though it would still be devastating for an unprepared Canadian economy when the lower cost, lower emissions Saudi oil inevitably wins out.

Unfortunately, the global implications couldn’t be more severe. Canada’s efforts to be the last country producing oil have led to a strategic alliance with a transnational energy industry interested only in ensuring it can keep producing fossil fuels ad infinitum. Which means that despite the country’s stated commitments on climate change and its (slowly) escalating domestic climate ambitions, Canada is wielding its power to ensure that the world fails to limit warming to less than two degrees, or even three or four.

Every new fossil fuel project is an opportunity for Canada to choose whether we’re on the same side as Saudi Arabia. From the Trans Mountain Expansion to Bay du Nord, the Trudeau government has made its choice clear.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

[Top photo: Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register]