Yager: Many letters, confusing words – education does not ensure energy expertise

Academics’ attack on carbon capture and storage more of a publicity stunt than productive public policy

By David Yager
Photo courtesy Shell Canada

It was presented as important energy policy commentary by hundreds of educated, thoughtful and respected members of Canadian academia. 

In fact, it was publicity-seeking media clickbait intended to forward a predetermined agenda and conclusion.  

It worked.  

Without questioning the message or intent, a Postmedia headline January 20 read, “More than 400 academics urge Canada to ditch carbon capture tax credit.” It opened, Canada’s plans to introduce a tax credit for carbon capture in the country’s oilpatch would amount to a fossil fuel subsidy for an ineffective technology, a group of academics said in a letter to the deputy prime minister.” 

Multiple media outlets carried versions of the same story.  

This was the desired headline. Hundreds of scholars with lots of letters before and after their names expressing a public position on anything was guaranteed to attract attention. 

But in reality, it was the same anti-fossil fuel message that has led to serious problems with global energy prices and supplies.  

Carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, is a promising technology for oil producers to continue to supply the energy and products the world demands while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions.  

But it keeps the oil business in business. 

That’s the problem. 

The letter was addressed to Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance; Jonathan Wilkinson, Minster of Natural Resources; and Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change. It did not disclose the author(s) or contact information. 

It was followed by 15 pages of names and titles from universities, organizations and associations from across Canada. 

The huge number of endorsements was to ensure credibility without scrutiny. How could this many smart people be wrong?  

The list included previously unrecognized sources of expertise on energy, tax policy and CCUS. These included anthropology, religious studies, humanities, political science, geography, sociology, Asian studies, aquaculture, biology, kinesiology, architecture, social justice, space science and public administration. 

But they care deeply. And when it comes to climate change, what else matters? 

The first point was that tax deductions for CCUS are a fossil fuel subsidy and the Liberal government has claimed it will quit those subsidies.  

The second was that CCUS is a flawed solution stating, Despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent by governments globally on CCUS, the technology has not made a dent in CO2 emissions.” 

The third was financial risk. Safe, permanent and verifiable storage of CO2 is difficult to guarantee”, so the “…risks…are highly likely to be transferred from the private sector to the public.” 

But the next paragraph revealed the true intent. Put simply, rather than replacing fossil fuels, carbon capture prolongs our dependence on them at a time when preventing catastrophic climate change requires winding down fossil fuel use.” 

It concluded, We must move forward with proven climate solutions that will contribute most to emissions reductions; increased electrification, wide-scale use of renewable energy, and intensifying energy efficiency.” 

The letter read more like a fundraising pitch from an environmental group than the combined wisdom of the smartest people in the country. 

First, tax incentives for large capital projects are proven winners for the public treasury. Unlocking private sector investment that would not take place otherwise creates significant returns for all levels of government as they collect taxes on everything. This includes fuel, property, GST, PST, wages and corporate profits. 

The Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance that spurred oil sands expansion in the 1990s was a catalyst for an economic windfall that continues today. No accounting, tax or finance professional would ever call this a subsidy. 

Second, that CCUS has not yet made a dent” in emissions is misleading. CCUS projects in Canada alone have removed more than 43 million tonnes of emissions over the last two decades.  

The only activity by governments that has reduced total global emissions was domestic and international COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. And that was temporary.  

Trillions of government and consumer dollars supporting renewable energy globally hasn’t made a dent” in global emissions either.  

CCUS is an emerging technology that will get better and cheaper with research, investment and experience. Like windmills and solar panels 20 years ago.  

Third, there is no evidence that reliable, low-cost energy alternatives exist at sufficient scale to accelerate winding down the use of fossil fuels anywhere anytime soon. The opposite is true as high energy costs and supply challenges force more countries to return to coal.  

Using CCUS to reduce the impact of fossil fuels that cannot yet be replaced is a practical solution to a problem that the world has yet to solve. 

Finally, claiming that renewable energy is a proven climate solution” ignores the current energy supply and price mess caused by too many jurisdictions going too far too soon on fossil fuel replacement.  

The only place that existing renewable energy sources are successfully replacing fossil fuels is in ivory towers of academia. 

Putting the names of 400 academics on a letter encouraging the federal government to get more aggressive on the pre-COVID climate playbook when the rest of the world is changing direction out of economic necessity is more of a publicity stunt than productive public policy. 

Please leave economic policy, energy science and the development of new ways to decarbonize the atmosphere to actual subject matter experts.

David Yager is an oil service executive, oil and gas writer, energy policy analyst and author of From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, a Carbon Story. More at www.miracletomenace.ca  

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