Uncertain weather: the oil industry under climate alarmism

By: Brian Wm. Schulte PG and Henry Lyatsky


The interpretation and opinions expressed here are the authors' ideas on related science that interests us and affects us.  Some members have quite different interpretations of this science and the editorial committee actively welcomes other articles from other perspectives on this and other interesting topics

“We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” George H.W. Bush

“To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it.”  Henry Kissinger

Many feel passionate about climate change, and they may feel that the climate concerns discussed in this paper are either overblown or understated. Some may feel that climate change due to man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) is not a valid scientific hypothesis at all, while others may think the world is facing an existential and imminent climate catastrophe. We find no scientific basis for either of these extremist views.

One significant concern is that environmental policies might cause a reduction of GDP and loss of jobs.  But consider this: while the environment improved with the disappearance of unwholesome horse manure from urban streets when cars replaced horses a century ago, this change did eliminate some teamster jobs, but the new transportation technology also improved productivity and created new kinds of employment previously unimagined.

For now, though, hydrocarbons remain vital to our way of life. To obtain the “social license” to operate, the oil industry needs to communicate better about what it is doing in regard to reduction of GHGs emissions; enhancing production with less environmental impact; and vividly show what oil and gas really means to Canada in terms of economics, creation of jobs and innovative ideas that could affect the world.

This paper will utilize scientific research as much as possible. It represents the opinion of the authors.


On the existing scientific evidence, and avoiding false certainties, it seems that:

1)      The global climate is probably warming, as it has been since the last Ice Age ended.

2)      Man-made GHGs could be a small or large contributing factor in this climate change in the recent decades.

One complexity in climate formation is around the oceans acting as a buffer, thus mitigating temperature changes in the atmosphere, and also acting as a transport system, moving heat around the world (Smith et al., 2005). The mechanisms involved in heat transfer and climate control tend to be convection cells in the atmosphere, ocean oscillations, thermohaline circulation, sun intensity, etc.

In the geologic past, there have been drastic changes in the climate from meteorite-impact ejecta and volcanic dust cooling the Earth. More slowly, the climate has changed due to variations in solar output, changes of the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun, fluctuations in the atmosphere’s gas composition, and so on.  The past succession of ice ages apparently owes something to these and other natural factors.  Fluctuations in solar intensity and effects of these fluctuations on oceanic circulation are thought to have driven significant climate changes throughout the Earth’s history (e.g., Smith et al., 2005; Broecker et al., 1985; Heinrich, 1988; McManus et al., 2004).

Today, it is suspected that human emissions are also influencing the climate. A former British prime minister, Tony Blair, among others, stated that if we reduce GHG emissions and anthropogenic climate change turns out not to be true, then we have reduced pollution and improved air quality. Blair also argued that if we don’t act and man-made climate change is real, we will have betrayed the future generations, and this is why we need to put aside discussions about whether global warming is real and start focusing on how we can do things better for our children and their children.

Growth of science is neither easy nor straightforward.  Some commonly accepted ideas were initially met with incomprehension or even hostility, for example:

1)      Heliocentric solar system

2)      Round Earth

3)      Germ theory of disease

4)      Genetic inheritance

5)      Evolution of life on Earth

We may chuckle at this list, but it is not easy to accept counter-intuitive ideas that are hard to picture: the Sun, after all, “obviously” circles the Earth.  Before we get too smug, let’s ask how many of today’s established or rising dogmas are standing on feet of clay, and how silly they might look to future generations.  Climate controls are extremely complex, and climate models, like any models, are only as good as their assumptions, designated parameters and variables, and factual constraints.

The first part of this article presents a general picture of the Earth’s very complex climate, on which the external, natural-endogenous, or man-made influences act in unpredictable ways.  It shows that while some concern about anthropogenic impacts on the climate is scientifically warranted, alarmism is not: we simply don’t know enough about how climate forms, and to claim that anybody can predict the climate a century forward is absurd.

The oil industry needs to honestly tell everyday Canadians about the climate-science uncertainties, and to show them how the industry is keeping the country’s lights on while being environmentally sensible.

Convection cells in the atmosphere

Figure 1:              Convection in atmospheric circulation, and distribution of easterlies and westerlies. All this is part of nautical navigation, and the charts ship captains made of ocean currents used to be top secret. A good captain would seek a route and sailing season with favorable winds. At the equator lie the doldrums, with less wind.

The Earth's weather is mostly a consequence of illumination by the Sun and of the laws of thermodynamics, producing atmospheric circulation (Wikipedia, 2018a). This circulation is broken into cells.

1)      Hadley cell – This closed circulation loop begins at the equator, where moist air is warmed by the Earth's sunlit surface.  The low-density warm air rises, creating a general low-pressure zone in the equatorial regions.  The air then moves poleward in the upper atmosphere: it cools, increases in density, descends, and creates a high-pressure zone around 30o latitude - North and South.  The Coriolis effect causes the winds to be easterly, creating the trade winds.

2)      Polar cell – Like the Hadley cell, it is a closed circulation loop. Around the 60th parallel the air is still sufficiently warm and moist to undergo convection and move poleward, creating a thermal loop. The polar cell causes the polar easterlies. The outflow of air mass from this cell creates ultra-long harmonic waves in the atmosphere called Rossby waves, which determine the path of the polar jet stream

3)      Ferrel cell – Part of the air rising at ~60° latitude diverges at high altitude toward the poles and creates the polar cell. The rest moves toward the equator where it collides at ~30° latitude with the high-level air of the Hadley cell. There it descends and strengthens the high-pressure ridges beneath. A large part of the energy that drives the Ferrel cell is provided by the polar and Hadley cells that circulate on either side and drag the Ferrel cell with it (Yochanan, 2000). This is a zone of mixing and it explains the mid-latitude westerlies.

The Hadley and Polar cells are products of surface temperatures, and the Ferrel cell is in turn driven by the Hadley and Polar cells. As the surface temperature changes when the solar output fluctuates, so will the convection cells.

El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle

Figure 2:              With a La Niña (on the right), surface winds and water flow from the Americas to Southeast Asia. As surface water is moved away from the coast of South America, cool water from the deep ocean can well up. In an El Niño year (left), these surface winds and the corresponding flow of surface water weaken, allowing the water to return eastward. Warm water off the coast of South America blocks the upwelling (Findley, 2016). Diagram from NOAA (2014).

The trade winds are created by the high-to-low pressure gradient in the Hadley cell. This causes surface winds and water to flow from the Americas to Southeast Asia (Findley, 2016). As the surface water moves away from South America, cool, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean wells up. This is known as La Niña. It causes colder-than-normal winters in North America and a more robust cyclone season in Southeast Asia and eastern Australia. With a La Niña, there is an increase in hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico because wind shear (difference in strength of winds at low and high atmospheric levels) is increased over the Pacific and reduced over the Atlantic (The Associated Press, 2010).  A strong wind shear reduces hurricanes by breaking them up.

When the gradient is reduced the trade winds lessen; westerly winds can even be created, reducing the flow of water westward across the Pacific. Warm water off the coast of South America blocks the upwelling (University of Illinois, 2010; Findley, 2016).

Convective clouds and heavy rains are fueled by increased buoyancy of the lower atmosphere due to heating by the warmer waters below (University of Illinois, 2010). As warmer water shifts eastward, so do the associated clouds and thunderstorms, resulting in dry conditions in Indonesia and Australia while more flood-prone conditions arise in Peru and Ecuador.  This is a so-called El Niño. Such events bring more tropical storms and hurricanes to the eastern Pacific, because the hurricane-destroying wind shear increases over the Atlantic and decreases over the Pacific (The Associated Press, 2010).

Over the last several decades, the number of El Niño events seems to have increased relative to previous decades, and the number of La Niña events decreased (Trenberth and Hoar, 1996).  However, a much longer period of observing the ENSO is needed to detect robust changes reliably (Wittenberg, 2009). It is possible that this apparent increase in El Niño events is somehow linked to man-made global warming.

Other oceanic oscillations

The ocean and atmosphere interact in a coupled system, influencing each other as the Sun heats both the atmosphere and the ocean.  Six major known oceanic oscillations, besides ENSO, are listed below (WHOI, 2018).

1)      The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is caused by the difference of atmospheric pressure at sea level between the Icelandic Low (between Iceland and southern Greenland) and the Azores High (south of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean). The NAO drives winds from the Atlantic over Europe. The more positive the NAO, the warmer the air that is blown toward the continent.

2)      The Arctic Oscillation (AO), in its cool phase, causes much of North America, northern Europe and Asia to have cold and stormy winters, and it causes an increase in storms around the Mediterranean. In its warm phase, it brings about the opposite, with much of North America and northern Europe experiencing mild winters while drought conditions arise in the Mediterranean region.

3)      The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) has its warm and cool phases, which tend to last about 25–30 years and then switch. The PDO affects Pacific and Atlantic hurricane activity, droughts and flooding around the Pacific basin, and winter temperatures over most of North America (NCSU, 2018; WHOI, 2018). The PDO can intensify or counteract the impacts of the ENSO. If both the ENSO and the PDO are in phase, the El Niño/La Niña impacts may be magnified. Conversely, if the ENSO and the PDO are out of phase, they may offset one another, preventing true ENSO impacts from becoming manifest.

4)      In the Atlantic Multi Decadal Oscillation (AMO), as with the PDO, the warm and cool periods tend to last 25-30 years. The AMO affects air temperatures and rainfall over much of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in North America and Europe (UCAR, 2018c). It is associated with changes in the frequency of North American droughts and of severe Atlantic hurricanes. There is a net balance when the Pacific is warming and the Atlantic is cooling, or vice versa. The net result is to maintain stable average surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere (Fischetti, 2015).

5)      The Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), in its warm phase, brings relatively light winds and relatively settled weather to the middle latitudes, together with enhanced westerly winds over the southern oceans. In its cool phase, the westerlies are stronger over the middle latitudes, with more unsettled weather over the southern oceans (WHOI, 2018).

6)      The India Ocean Dipole (IOD), if positive, means that warm water piles up off the African coast and cooler water off Western Indonesia and Australia's northwest coast (Brokensha, 2015). A negative IOD is the opposite, with warm water off Western Indonesia and northwest Australia, and cooler water off Africa. The positive IOD phase is generally linked to an El Nino event. 

Figure 3:              Oceanic Oscillations and their distribution around the world, and major ocean currents (from Pidwirny, 2006; Gratz, 2016). PDO = Pacific Decadal Oscillation; ENSO = El Niño-Southern Oscillation; AMO = Atlantic Multi Decadal oscillation; NAO = North Atlantic Oscillation; IOD = India Ocean Dipole.

These oceanic oscillations rearrange patterns of atmospheric pressure, affecting the wind patterns and sea-surface temperatures. They also affect precipitation, and they can drastically change regional weather (WHOI, 2018).

Thermohaline circulation

Figure 4:              Major ocean currents of the world. The Gulf Stream flows from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe, carrying warm water (from Pidwirny, 2006).

Thermohaline circulation is largely driven by the formation of deep-water masses in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean due to differences in the water temperature and salinity (Wikipedia, 2018c). The North Atlantic Drift is an example of thermohaline circulation. 

Thermohaline circulation drives the so-called “ocean conveyor belt”, which shuttles sea water of different density around the world’s oceans (Schultz, 2009) and links major surface and deep-water oceanic currents in the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans (UCAR, 2018a). Thermohaline circulation is affected by global water-density gradients due to surface heating and freshwater fluxes (Rahmstorf, 2003; Lappo, 1984; Wikipedia, 2018b) such as river discharges and melting of glaciers.

These present-day patterns are just a snapshot in geologic time.  As the world climate gets significantly cooler or warmer, they change.  Thus, global-scale climate change – from whatever causes – can mean big and unpredictable changes of regional climates.

Major climate periods in recorded history

Who now remembers the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent?  It is largely desert today – and yet, when it really was fertile several millennia ago, that’s where much of the human civilization got its start!

The ‘Roman Warm Period’ lasted from 250 BC to 540 AD. It is thought to have resulted from a lull in volcanic eruptions and/or by fluctuations in ocean-warming events such as the El Niño.

The Roman Warm Period saw the flourishing of the Roman Empire. The glaciers in the Alps shrank and, quite possibly, receded to their modern extent. Around 201 BC in the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome, Hannibal’s Carthaginian army crossed the Alps with its elephants.

Around 540 AD, according to evidence in tree rings, there was a sudden and catastrophic drop in temperatures, which is thought to have been caused by a comet exploding in the atmosphere (Highfield et al., 2000). This explosion blanketed the world with a cloud of dust which blocked the sunlight. Result: the ‘Dark Ages Cold Period’.

The Earth heated up again in the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ of 950–1250.  It is thought that this was only a regional event, caused by some changes in heat distribution around the world (Schultz, 2009).  The warming was mostly felt in the Northern Hemisphere, while the Southern Hemisphere was cooler. 

It has been hypothesized that increased solar output in a grand solar maximum (1100–1250) and a lull in volcanic eruptions (Schultz, 2009) not only started but maintained a strongly positive NAO mode, which caused persistent warm winds in the Northern Hemisphere, and a La Niña mode that cooled the Southern Hemisphere. These NAO and La Niña modes were connected by thermohaline circulation and they reinforced each other in a positive feedback loop.

Then came four massive tropical volcanic eruptions beginning around 1250, and they brought on the Little Ice Age (1250–1850). The volcanic activity throughout the Little Ice Age included eleven major eruptions, three of those at 7.0 on the VEI (Volcano Explosivity Index). In the last 10,000 years there were only ten known eruptions with a VEI of 7.0, and three of them occurred during the Little Ice Age.

These three volcanic eruptions were:

1)      Mount Samalas on Lombok Island, Indonesia in 1257, which formed a crater lake (Segara Anak).

2)      An eruption around 1465, location uncertain. On October 10, 1465 in Naples, Italy the sun turned blue at noon (this is surprising: particulates in the atmosphere usually turn the sun red; Gorvett, 2017; Krazytrs, 2017). Evidence of this extremely massive eruption can be seen in ice cores from both poles. It might have occurred somewhere in the tropics, as suggested by the distribution of the ash.

3)      The Mount Tambora (1815) eruption, which was probably the most devastating in recorded history.

The Little Ice Age also saw four episodes when sunspots became exceedingly rare and the solar output correspondingly decreased, which contributed to cooling the climate: the Wolf Minimum (1280-1350); the Spörer Minimum (1450-1540); the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715); and the Dalton Minimum (1790-1820). These minimums might have modified the Arctic Oscillation/North Atlantic Oscillation (Shindell et al., 2001).

Where we are now

After 1850 the Earth began to warm up again, which slightly preceded the spread of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the average global temperature has continued, though far from steadily, to rise. Some of the recent warming might have been due to several man-made factors.

1)      Burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal for electricity and heating, which accounted for 42% of the GHG emissions in 2016 (IEA, 2016).

2)      Transportation by planes, rail, automobiles etc., which accounted for 24% of the 2016 GHG emissions (IEA, 2016).

3)      Deforestation, especially of the rain forests which provide a cooling band around the equator, accounts for another ~15% of GHGs.  This happens because felled trees release the carbon they are storing into the atmosphere (Scheer and Moss, 2012).

4)      Methane release by the oil and gas industry.  However, from 1990 to 2012, the amount of industry-emitted methane dropped by 11% thanks to improved practices (Ward, 2015).

5)      Livestock farming, where cattle and sheep produce methane as flatulence from digesting grass. In Britain it is responsible for 25% of the methane produced (Allen, 2008). Enteric fermentation is the second largest cause of methane release. The future will probably see an increase in livestock farming to feed a growing and more affluent population.

6)      Fertilizers containing nitrogen produce nitrous oxide. The key to using nitrogen in fertilizers more efficiently is to have good growing conditions, so the crops can take up and make use of more of the nitrogen, and to apply the nitrogen in small doses at key times in the plants’ growth.

7)      Fluorinated gases that are used in commercial and industrial refrigeration, air-conditioning systems and heat-pump equipment, as well as blowing agents for foams, fire extinguishers, aerosol propellants and solvents.

Carbon sinks

Carbon sinks are natural systems that absorb more carbon than they release. The main natural carbon sinks are vegetation, soil and oceans (Conserve Energy Future, 2018).

One of the biggest sinks is the rain forest. At one time, it was able to absorb from the atmosphere two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Now, according to studies, it is only able to withdraw one billion tonnes per year (Radford, 2015).

Research is ongoing on carbon sequestration in soils, and on how this can be applied in land-restoration programs in places like the North American prairie, the North China Plain, and even the parched interior of Australia. Adding carbon back into the soil will boost soil productivity and increase its resilience to droughts and floods (Schwartz, 2014).

Our specific knowledge of the oceans is extremely sketchy due to a lack of broad-scale measurements: the oceans are vast and deep, and deployment of instruments to provide good data coverage on a sustained basis can be prohibitively expensive.  There seem to be two mechanisms of how the ocean handles carbon (Conserve Energy Future, 2018).

1)      The biological pump transfers surface carbon towards the seabed through the food web, where it is covered by sediments and stored in the long term.

2)      The physical pump exists due to the ocean circulation. In the Polar regions, denser water flows towards the deep sea, dragging down the dissolved carbon. At high latitudes, the water will store CO2 more easily because low temperatures facilitate atmospheric CO2 dissolution. It has been estimated that the ocean stores 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere.

Some of the CO2 combines with calcium already present in seawater, forming calcium carbonate which is used by shellfish and reefs (Conserve Energy Future, 2018). When these organisms die, the organic material sinks to the ocean floor, where it is buried by sediment and is thus taken out of the environment for millions of years.

Some controls on the climate

As we have seen, the Earth’s climate is complex, and climate changes over a short period can be controlled by many factors.

1)      Oceanic oscillations and thermohaline circulation and their interactions with each other.

2)      Solar activity. We do not yet understand how exactly it affects the climate in the short term, but it may alter the oceanic oscillations.  Long-term, because the Earth sits in the “Goldilocks zone” in the solar system, where the sun is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain life, significant changes in the solar output could be devastating.  Anyone who has experienced the air chill in a solar eclipse will know that unease.

3)      Large meteorite impacts, which cause very rapid changes in the climate due to both explosive dust ejection into the atmosphere and a spike in volcanic activity brought on by the impact.

4)      Large-scale volcanism, which can cool the Earth by putting dust into the air.

5)      Changes in the atmosphere’s composition. Today, the gases in the air are not all natural, but some of them are emitted by humans.  What effect human emissions have on the climate is speculative.

Other factors can affect our global climate over longer stretches of geologic time.

1)      Tectonics causes changes in ocean currents, for example when a new mid-ocean ridge rises, disrupts the previous currents, and causes a eustatic rise in sea level.  A eustatic sea-level drop and other kinds of ocean-current disruption can occur if a mid-ocean ridge disappears.

2)      Tectonics is thought to have created large super-continental masses (e.g. Pangea, Gondwana), which promoted continental climates. If large continents break up into smaller pieces, or parts of them subside into the sea, the areas of continental climate are reduced and oceanic climates become more common.

3)      Increases in water vaporization can be caused by global warming or by expanded surface area of the seas, which will increase humidity. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, although an extensive cloud cover can also blot out the sunlight. Global cooling, or a big eustatic sea-level drop (and thus sea-area shrinkage), can have the opposite effect.

4)      The position of continents in relation to the poles will also affect their regional climates.  If the land mass is near the pole, less energy from sunlight results in lower temperatures and less vegetation, whereas near the equator the result is a warmer regional climate.

5)      Melting of polar ice freshens the ocean water, which has the potential to alter the thermohaline circulation around the world (UCAR, 2018b).

6)      Earth's precession (change in the tilt of the rotational axis of the Earth relative to the Earth’s orbital plane) is periodic. This influences the climate on a 23,000-year cycle.

7)      Milankovitch Cycles are changes in the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun due to gravitational influences of other planets. The main cycles seem to have periods of 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years, which promotes an ice age every 100,000 years or so (Blosser, 2015).

The past changes in climate were entirely natural, but now we cannot rule out human impacts as the planet's average surface temperature has apparently risen since the 19th century. By modern estimations, most of the recent warming seems to have occurred until the late 1990s, when the temperature rises apparently stalled (NOAA, 2018; Rose, 2012).

Some uncertainties about global warming

The world’s climate is cooling and a new ice age is imminent: many college students were taught this in their science classes in the 1970s.  The supposed cause of this cooling was a natural climate cyclicity, made worse by the release into the air of sunlight-blotting, man-made aerosols.  Trying to airbrush it from history, modern climate alarmists often deny the global-cooling scare of that age, if they bother to mention it at all – but that scare was widespread and strong, in both scientific communications and in the ever-alarmist media.

One of the current questions about global warming is how surface temperatures seem to have remained constant for the past two decades or so: it’s the so-called global-warming “pause” (Fischetti, 2015). This pause (assuming it is indeed just a temporary pause and not a new long-term trend) could be caused by the PDO and the AMO currently being off balance towards the cooler side. These warmer and cooler periods of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean can last for decades.

However, our extremely sketchy factual knowledge of the oceans raises doubts about the “official” claims that excess heat from ongoing global warming is somehow hiding in the oceans and will soon come out with a vengeance.  The very term “pause” is very tendentious, even perverse, putting theory before facts, as if the observed stable temperatures are aberrant and the theoretical warming trend is somehow intact.

A speculative story runs like this.  When the Pacific is warming, the Atlantic is cooling, and vice versa. These phenomena offset each other and maintain a stable surface temperature in the Northern Hemisphere (Fischetti, 2015).  For the past decade, northern Pacific cooling has been greater than northern Atlantic warming. This slows down the rate of global warming. In other words, if the two oceans were in a perfect offset cycle with one being cool and the other warm, we’d have felt higher surface temperatures today.

There is also another complication: the Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets do not shrink or grow in tandem. Speculatively, this could be because the Southern Ocean Circumpolar Current prevents warmer ocean water from reaching the Antarctic sea ice zone, which helps to isolate the continent. The winds in the ice zone keep the water extremely cold, which enables the ice cover to grow even as global temperatures increase (Berwyn, 2016).

One argument proponents of man-made global warming use is a supposed increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes.  But any such dynamics can be perfectly natural.  There were 29 hurricanes tracked into the Caribbean in the ten strongest La Niña years, when at the same time there was a positive Atlantic multidecadal oscillation period (Klotzbach, 2011). There were only two hurricanes tracked through the Caribbean in the 10 strongest El Niño years, when at the same time there was a negative Atlantic multidecadal oscillation period. This illustrates the climate’s complexity and militates against simplistic default judgments.

The unknowns are vast and many.  The Arctic ice seems to have stabilized or even re-grown in the recent years, after a previous period of substantial reduction.  Only time will reveal the actual long-term trend.  Besides, it is important to specify the nature of ice measurements being quoted: is it the area covered or the total volume of the ice?  Over what length of time?  Are the entire averages being considered, or just a minimum vs. a maximum?  Is the estimated change large or too trivial to matter?

Another confusing issue is that academic and government science agencies are under attack in many circles for allegedly misrepresenting the past global temperatures and ice extent, in order to make any recent changes look bigger.  Alarmism makes it easier to attract public funding on which the academia depends.  Because the academia is a tightly closed shop organized around mutual “peer review” of researchers’ work, transparency is lacking and conformism is easy to enforce (see Climategate). Keeping an open mind, it is therefore wise to take modern climate projections and models with a big grain of salt, and to expect that accumulating new facts will clarify the picture over time.

As well, the recent decades saw strong volcanic activity. The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, for example, sent tens of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, promoting cooler weather and masking the effects of any possible warming (Upton, 2016).

The greenhouse effect, where GHGs trap the solar heat on Earth and prevent its re-radiation into space, has been well understood at the laboratory level for many decades.  It is undeniable also that human activity today releases a variety of GHGs into the air, where many of these GHGs, being slow to break down, accumulate.  What is less clear is whether or how laboratory-level understanding scales up to a global level.  What positive and negative feedbacks kick in?  What other climate drivers does the supposedly increased greenhouse effect compete with, and which drivers have the most impact?  That the GHGs are a climate-driving factor is probable.  How much of a factor, remains very unclear.

Another concern is that climate science relies very heavily on abstract numerical models, even while the factual measurements and data collection – especially in the oceans – are lagging.  Absurdly, the “official” UN climate models, assumption-based as they are, claim to predict the world’s temperatures almost a century from now!  Such pseudo-predictions are arbitrary and tendentious, almost fraudulent, and they should be dismissed.  To use them as a basis for public policy – as the 2015 Paris agreement insists on doing – is obscenely irresponsible or worse.

The main enemies of responsible climate science appear to be two opposing extremist twins: (1) official alarmism and (2) total denial.  Both these absolutisms are false – and very dangerous.

Spectacularly failed alarmist predictions are too many to list.  The Arctic ice is supposed to be all gone by now.  Almost comically, the late 1990s saw the infamous hockey-stick graph, which claimed that the world was entering a runaway and accelerating climate warming.  It was proposed just when the so-called “pause” in warming occurred.

Any kind of weather is ascribed by the alarmists to man-made global warming.  Record cold snaps and heat waves are equally pronounced to be evidence of global warming.  Alternatively, some inconvenient cold episodes are simply left without comment.  Rain or shine, freeze or thaw, snow or melt, flood or drought – all are declared to be produced by catastrophic global warming.  This is simply not credible.

The other extreme is total denial that human drivers on climate change even exist.  Given the propaganda power of official alarmism, dissent is very welcome.  Still, the greenhouse effect is fairly well understood at least in principle, and the GHGs in the air are measurably accumulating. 

Global warming is probably occurring it is just the amount of it is unclear due to dynamic processes occurring in nature.  Some fraction of it – could be a little or a lot – is perhaps attributable to human influences.  To be more specific would be too speculative.

Canada’s CO2 emissions

Figure 5:              Share of electricity sources in the United States (EIA, 2018) and Canada (NRC, 2018a). Perhaps due to our geography, Canada is predominately hydroelectric (renewable) while the U.S. is largely on natural gas and coal.

In Canada, five provinces and one territory produce over 90% of their electricity from renewable sources: Newfoundland & Labrador, Quebec, PEI (wind), Manitoba, BC and Yukon (NRC, 2018a). From 2000 to 2016, Canada has reduced its CO2 emission from electricity generation by 39% (NRC, 2018b). Electricity generation accounts for only 11% of Canadian GHG emissions due to high use of hydro, nuclear and other “clean” energy sources (NRC, 2018a).

While coal is still a significant source for power generation, the growing abundance of low-cost natural gas from fracking is displacing it, as coal-fired power plants switch to cleaner and cheaper gas.  

Figure 6:              Electricity sources for BC (left) and Alberta (right).  Data from NRC (2018a). BC is overwhelmingly hydroelectric while Alberta uses a lot of coal and gas. Alberta burns more coal than all the other Canadian provinces combined for electricity generation.

The other big sources of CO2 emission in Canada are the oil and gas sector (26%) and transportation (25%) (MRC, 2018a). The oil and gas industry’s emissions break down thus (CAPP, 2018):

10%        Oil sands

11%        Other oil and gas upstream activities

  5%        Downstream and transportation

Figure 7:              Comparison of the oil-sands GHG emissions and the coal-generated emissions in the United States (2013 coal GHG power-generation data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and 2013 oil-sands GHG data from Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 1990-2013: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada).

Figure 7 vividly shows that the oil sands in Canada produce but a tiny fraction of the U.S. coal-fired GHG emissions – and all of that is surpassed by the ever-growing emissions in China.

Standard of living and greenhouse gases

That fossil fuels make our way of life possible is self-evident.  This does not mean, however, that no reasonable environmental policies can ever be implemented.  It only means we have to be smart, mind the costs, and be sensitive to the moods and needs of the mainstream Canadians.

Large countries with high GDP are the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Italy and Canada. There is a strong coupling between economic growth and GHG emissions. Many people are concerned that by reducing their emissions they will have to reduce their standard of living.

Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Ontario have experienced varying degrees of success in reducing emissions (Hughes and Herian, 2017). Ontario, in particular, has rapidly decreased its CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2009 by phasing out the generation of electricity from coal in favor of natural gas and renewables.  However, this policy came at a tremendous cost to the ratepayers and it partly caused the crushing electoral defeat of that province’s previous government.

Therein lies both a conundrum and a way forward.  We must always make sure that mainstream Canadians have a vivid and immediate idea of what any particular public policy, be it industrial or environmental, means for them.

Improving the oil and gas industry’s PR

At the 2014 Unconventional Resource Technology Conference (URTEC) in Denver, Anadarko Petroleum’s VP Rockies Scott Key spoke about minimizing community and environmental disruption in their shale plays. He spoke about zero methane emissions, centralized stimulation centers to reduce noise levels, and transporting water and produced liquids underground by pipe to reduce truck traffic. These actions increased Anadarko’s local social license to operate.

This example shows that the social license must come not from implacable special-interest groups but from everyday citizens.  It is to regular Canadians that our PR should be addressed.  “What does it mean for me?” is the question on the mind of a voter assessing a proposed public policy or political platform (Lyatsky, 2017). 

We must also be very clear about the vast uncertainties of climate forecasts.  Let us be honest about the real climate concerns, and be humble about how little we still know.

Mainstream Canadians want the vital benefits coming from production and use of fossil fuels: affordable transportation and heating, vital oil-derived materials, good jobs, safe and strong communities, and good public services paid for by reasonable taxes and royalties.  Still, mainstream Canadians want regulations to keep our environment reasonably clean.

To attract foreign investment, it would be nice if the oil and gas industry and the provincial and federal governments could work in cooperation through the various professional organizations like CAPP, APEGA, etc. and policies be more self-regulatory with oil and gas companies understanding the negative PR and effect on the entire industry if they were to fail in reducing their GHGs emissions or impact the environment in a negative way.

Oil and gas companies also have a vested interest in developing research and technologies to help with changing how we do things to improve our production, reduce costs and lessen our environmental impact. Better tax incentives and awards in reduction of GHGs emissions would be a nice carrot to the industry rather than introducing carbon taxes which tends to be more of a stick.

Alberta in 2016 placed 43rd overall out of 96 locations for upstream oil and gas investment, down from 25th in 2015 and 15th in 2014 (McGarvey, 2016). This change is due to policies that were introduced that were confusing and possibly costly, high taxation, and uncertain environmental regulations (McGarvey, 2016).

For far too long, we oil people have been talking not to the general public but only to ourselves about the issues. We must convince mainstream Canadians that oil and gas production and use are vital for them.

The oil industry must explain and demonstrate to the public how its work is making our very way of life possible.  At the same time, we must show that we are making changes to reduce our environmental impacts where possible. We can showcase technologies like fiber optic cables being used to monitor pipelines for leaks and pressure drops (as opposed to the past practice of long “gauge runs” where a worker drove hundreds of miles on back-country roads to manually record analog-gauge readings).  To have intelligent conversations with those that oppose oil and gas we need to use facts to show what we are doing to decrease our footprint on the environment while keeping everybody’s lights on.

The Canadian oil industry has been able to reduce its carbon footprint through strong environmental regulations, such as those around venting and flaring of natural gas. If the entire world adopted our regulations, it might be able to cut the GHG emissions from the oil and gas industry globally by 23% (Weber, 2018). Our oil industry is continually working on ways to reduce GHG emissions through technological and operational improvements.  Evidence of this is that in the oil sands GHG emissions per barrel have dropped 29% from 2000 to 2016 (NRC, 2018b).

Canada imports oil from other countries in part because most of our refineries cannot handle the Canadian heavy crude.  It was decided years ago that it was cheaper to import sweeter blends of foreign oil rather than build the infrastructure to transport heavy oil eastward. Another reason Canada imports foreign oil is that the oil industry has failed in its PR game (Lyatsky, 2017).  Our own long-standing failure to address mainstream Canadians has enabled special interest groups to sow disinformation and confusion.  That, in turn, has opened the political space for ideologically and irrationally anti-oil governments to block the development and transportation of Canada’s own oil and gas.

The oil industry’s failed PR strategies must be reversed.  We must point out that much of the imported oil comes from dubious foreign regimes with bad human-rights and environmental practices, and that it often puts petrodollars into hostile or dangerous hands.

We should ask everyday Canadians to starkly imagine their lives if the fossil fuels and plastics were suddenly to disappear. 

We in the oil industry need to show that we are acting reasonably, based on reasonable assessment of climate science.  For the next several decades, there is no alternative to fossil fuels, especially natural gas.  But technology is changing, and new energy sources will inevitably increase their share in our ever-growing energy mix.  The industry must show that it is meeting the current and future energy demand responsibly, while also keeping an eye on useful innovations. Companies like BP, Repsol and Shell are already investing in battery charging and swapping for electric-powered locomotion.

The oil-rich Canadian provinces contribute into the national transfer-payments system that distributes wealth around the country. Provinces like Quebec and PEI receive large transfer payments.  Everybody uses oil, gas and petrochemicals.  Canadians outside the prairie provinces need to hear this truth loud and clear: the oil industry is Canada’s industry.  And that means it’s every Canadian’s industry.

And so, we must learn to think like most Canadians think.  We must learn to see ourselves through their eyes.  They, and not government bureaucrats or environmental campaigners, are the ones we need to address.  They are the only ones who will give us the social license to operate.

To do this we need to discuss climate-science uncertainties without sounding like wild-eyed total deniers.  Failure to develop smart PR is what has allowed hostile governments and special interest groups to hamstring our industry in recent years.  We must learn to speak with mainstream Canadians on their own terms.  Only then can we succeed.


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