Trudeau, Biden and their apparent love-hate relationship with oil

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Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


Just a few hours before flying to Glasgow for his first United Nations climate conference as U.S. president, Joe Biden had oil on his mind.

He was lobbying OPEC members and other countries around the world to urgently turn on the taps and pump out much more crude.

Then, less than 24 hours later, Biden was on stage at the conference in Glasgow, imploring the world to take decisive action on climate change, meet ambitious emissions reduction targets and commit significant dollars to help poor countries adapt to a changing environment.

It seems odd, contradictory and no doubt sprinkled with a touch of hypocrisy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds himself in a similar spot — using his speech on Day 1 of COP26 in Scotland to boast about Canada’s climate record and encouraging other countries to follow suit. Yet Canada is one of the largest oil-producing nations in the world and a heavy emitter.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Alberta is currently pumping out a record level of oil every day, and the output is expected to keep climbing. More export pipeline space and multi-year high prices are reason enough to encourage the industry to boost output.

For both leaders, there is much more nuance to their relationship with crude than that two-faced perception.

Biden wants more oil to provide relief at the pumps. Gasoline and diesel prices are high and continuing to climb, fuelling inflation woes in the United States and Canada.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks off the stage after speaking at COP26 in Glasgow on Monday. He said each country must do its part to fight climate change, since ‘none of us can expect the worst that is to come if we fail to seize this moment.’ (Evan Vucci/Pool/The Associated Press)

“I do think that the idea that Russia and Saudi Arabia and other major producers are not going to pump more oil so people can have gasoline to get to and from work, for example, is not … right,” Biden said Sunday night to journalists in Rome following the G20 leaders’ summit.

For Trudeau, the oilpatch is a key economic driver as one of Canada’s top exports (and likely in the No. 1 spot with surging prices in recent months). 

‘Biden’s comments are not helping’

Both leaders have also set goals to significantly decrease the level of greenhouse gases in their respective countries — with the U.S. aiming to slash emissions by 50 to 52 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, while Canada’s goal is to cut emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels over the same period.

“Biden’s comments are not helping,” said Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager with Ottawa-based Climate Action Network Canada.

“It really impacts the ability of the United States to influence countries like China and India and Brazil to do more.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, the oilpatch represents about 26 per cent of the country’s total emissions, which aren’t falling.

“Canada is a country that while we have made progress when it comes to our pledges, emissions continue to rise because we have given a free pass to the fossil fuel industry,” Pérez said.

Biden’s comments before COP26 about wanting more oil production are not helpful for climate talks, Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager with Climate Action Network Canada, said at the conference in Glasgow. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The dichotomy reminds Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart about Trudeau’s remark five years ago that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”

“Even governments that acknowledge the severity of the climate crisis have put off the politically hard decisions on a fossil fuel phase-out,” said Stewart, a senior energy strategist with the environmental organization.

New oilpatch emissions cap

Trudeau reiterated on Monday his goal of capping emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector, beginning in 2025.

“We’ll cap oil and gas sector emissions today and ensure they decrease tomorrow at a pace and scale needed to reach net zero by 2050,” he said during his two-minute speech in front of other world leaders gathered in Glasgow.

“That’s no small task for a major oil- and gas-producing country. It’s a big step that’s absolutely necessary.”

It’s not clear at what emissions level the cap will begin or how it will be achieved.

On stage on Monday, Biden described COP26 as an incredible opportunity, an inflection point in the world’s history and the kickoff to a decisive decade of ambition, “when we need to prove ourselves.”

Each country must do its part, he said, since “none of us can expect the worst that is to come if we fail to seize this moment.”

Biden referred to the volatile energy prices plaguing many parts of the world, but not to highlight his desire for more global oil production.

“High energy prices only reinforce the urgent need to diversify sources, double down on clean energy development and adopt promising new clean energy technologies,” he said.

Biden and Trudeau may not exactly love oil and other fossil fuels, but there is an affection based on necessity. Look down your street or around your community and it’s a reminder of how dependent both countries remain on oil and gas to move cars and trucks, heat homes and shops, and power many industries from manufacturing to agriculture.

Oil and gas are critical to the economies of both countries, even though both leaders despise the emissions that come with the burning of fossil fuels.

The oil and gas sector is Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 26 per cent of total emissions in 2019, according to Natural Resources Canada. The transport sector isn’t far behind, contributing 25 per cent of the country’s emissions. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Trudeau and Biden require material reductions from their sectors, but the world remains powered by fossil fuels, said Kevin Birn, a Calgary-based analyst with energy consultancy IHS Markit.

That’s why he said their relationship with oil weighs both the realities of the present and their goals for the future.

“For the U.S., this is about ensuring the affordability of consumer gasoline, and for Canada it is about oil and gas still being its largest and most valuable export commodity,” he said.

WATCH | Trudeau delivers Canada’s national statement at COP26: 

Trudeau delivers Canada’s national statement at COP26 summit

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will impose a hard cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector during his remarks at COP26 summit in Glasgow. 4:59



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