Thirteen oil and gas companies operating or based in Canada, including five of the six that make up the Pathways Alliance oil sands lobby group, are on the list of 88 big carbon polluters now being called out for a major share of the forested lands lost to wildfires in North America between 1986 and 2021, The Energy Mix has learned.
The fossil fuel and cement companies on the longer list share responsibility for 37% of the wildfire losses over the 35-year span in the western regions of Canada and the United States, according to a new study by the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the University of California, Merced.
“Using modelling data, researchers were able to determine that emissions traced back to those 88 companies resulted in an additional 80,000 kilometres squared being burned,” CBC reported last week. “That’s an area larger than the size of Ireland.”
The peer-reviewed research was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The Pathways Alliance members on the list, based on their emissions beginning in 1988, include:
• Houston-based ConocoPhillips in 19th position;
• Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) in 51st spot;
• Suncor Energy in 53rd place;
• Husky Energy, whose fossil production assets were bought out by Cenovus Energy in 2021, placing 74th;
• Colossal fossil ExxonMobil, whose subsidiary Imperial Oil is a Pathways Alliance member, places fifth on the global list, and higher than any other privately-held company, though Imperial’s emissions would only be a small share of the parent company’s outsized total.
The list includes eight foreign oil and gas companies [surely not “foreign-funded radicals”?—Ed.] operating in Canada: Shell (UK), Chevron (U.S.), TotalÉnergies (France), Petronas (Malaysia), Equinor (Norway), Repsol (Spain), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and Ovintiv (U.S., formerly Calgary-based Encana).
The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), whose CEO Sultan al Jaber is currently under intensifying pressure to step down as president of this year’s COP 28 negotiations, places 11th.
The remarkably precise modelling study was “the first to quantify how corporate emissions have made wildfires worse,” Grist wrote a week earlier. “Experts say the new research could help advance growing efforts to take polluters to court.”
The findings were based on modelling of the “vapour pressure deficit”—a measure of atmospheric drying power, or how thirstily a warming atmosphere sucks moisture out of vegetation. The attribution back to individual climate polluters was based on data gathered by the Snowmass, Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute.
“What we found is that the emissions from these companies have dramatically increased wildfire activity,” study co-author Carly Phillips, research scientist with the UCS Science Hub for Climate Litigation, told CBC. “I think the accountability piece for fossil fuel companies is really important and part of what makes this research unique.”
The Energy Mix Weekender digs into the legal ramifications here.
Alberta’s Summer of Wildfires
“More than one million hectares in Alberta have been scorched in what is a record-setting spring and an unprecedented start to wildfire season,” the Globe and Mail wrote last week. “Less than halfway through the seven-month period when the province is most at risk, Alberta is well on its way to having the worst fire season on record and exceeding 1981, when about 1.36 million hectares were burned.”
The scope of the 520 fires so far this year far outstripped the 615,000 hectares that burned during a record spring fire season in 2019, the Globe said.
“Fire season ends at the end of October so, for this time of year, yes this is extraordinary,” Alberta Fire spokesperson Christie Tucker told media. “Even though we have made headway on many wildfires on the landscape, we know that the season is far from over.”
CBC said the area burned by wildland forests each year has more than doubled since the 1970s, and Mike Flannigan, a professor and wildfire expert at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., said he wasn’t surprised.
“We’re getting warmer, so we’re seeing more fire,” he said.
In an opinion piece for the Globe, author John Vaillant agreed, suggesting that humanity “built a volcano” by warming the planet, then threw Alberta in.
“This situation was foreseen more than half a century ago, and it is now upon us with a vengeance,” Vaillant wrote. “Wildfire seasons have been lengthening, and fires have been burning with a greater destructive intensity.” Wildfire-generated pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorms “were an extreme rarity” before 2000, but “now they are a common feature; Alberta generated several of them in the first week of May alone.”
And while “wildfires have traditionally been viewed as a rural problem” in Canada, Vaillant said their increasing intensity is a problem wherever the forest meets the built environment. After watching the wildfire known as The Beast nearly obliterate Fort McMurray in 2016, he thought, “imagine what it could do to more southerly towns filled with old, densely packed wooden houses? Places such as Vancouver, Moose Jaw, or St. John’s? Imagine what such a fire could do in cottage country, or in the thousands of rural communities located in the wildland urban interface, where half of Canadians, and a third of Americans, now live.”
Wildfire Emissions Create Vicious Cycle
Factor in recent research concluding that industrial forestry in Canada emits as much climate pollution as the oil sands, and that the country’s official emissions inventory doesn’t capture the full impact, and you’re left with a vicious cycle—where a warmer, drier atmosphere driven by rising emissions results in more wildfire activity that produces another wave of emissions that aren’t fully addressed in national climate strategy.
Emissions reporting rules set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) allow countries to separate wildfire emissions and forest regrowth that are due to human activity from those that occur naturally, but only Australia and Canada use that method, explained Nature Canada campaigner Michael Polanyi. It’s a more complicated reporting approach that allows Canada to disregard emissions from “stand-replacing” wildfires that take out at least 20% of the carbon in a forest.
In 2021, those uncounted emissions totalled 287 million tonnes, another 42% on top of the 670 megatonnes Canada reported in its latest official inventory.
“That’s a bit problematic, given that so many other countries are counting those emissions,” Polanyi told The Energy Mix. “And it’s problematic because we know, as the [UCS] study shows, that human-caused, corporate-caused greenhouse gas emissions are exacerbating wildfires by drying up the atmosphere.”
But the biggest problem with Canada’s accounting method is that it leaves out the emissions that enter the atmosphere when a wildfire occurs, then takes credit for the carbon removed from the atmosphere after the burned area reaches commercial maturity, after regrowing naturally with no human intervention—to the tune of about 100 megatonnes of removals per year.
“Really, the bottom line is that it’s important that countries account for natural disturbances in a balanced way,” he said. “By not counting emissions from wildfires, on one hand, and on the other hand counting carbon removals from the atmosphere after wildfires, it’s a huge imbalance.”
The forest industry disputes Nature Canada’s findings. But Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Jerry DeMarco, reached a similar conclusion in an audit report last month, cautioning that “greenhouse gas effects of forests were not effectively communicated to support decision making and accountability.”
The audit report cited a “lack of transparency about the effects of human activities on forest emissions,” adding that “sector-specific reporting, as is done for the oil and gas industry, would support the development of effective policy measures to reduce emissions from the forestry sector.”