HALIFAX - As prominent climate scientists argue that new offshore oil and gas extraction must end off Canada's East Coast, the three main political parties either support continued development or are unclear on precisely what they would change.
Andrew MacDougall, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University who contributed to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — or IPCC — report, says if Canada is to meet its international commitments to keep temperature rise within safe limits, the age of offshore fossil fuels will have to wind down.
"If the government is serious about Canada's commitment (in the Paris agreement) to help reach the 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius target, there is no further need for oil and gas development," he said in an interview from his office in Antigonish, N.S., on Monday. "All of the fossil fuels that are necessary for transition have already been found."
The 2015 Paris agreement committed signatories to cutting carbon emissions to levels that would limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial times by the end of this century. Scientists have concluded in IPCC reports that if emissions goals aren't met, more frequent and worse heat waves, droughts, mass migrations and flood-inducing downpours can be expected.
MacDougall said climate modelling indicates the winding down of offshore oil and gas must begin in the mandate of the next federal government: "This is the decade where Canada's emissions really need to come down ....They've stabilized, but they have to start dropping if we have any hope of making 2050 targets (of net zero carbon emissions.)"
Similarly, climate researcher John England, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, said the time has come to "bite the bullet."
England said in a telephone interview on Monday he understands that the oil and gas industry faces a difficult future, but if the region doesn't begin a shift toward other offshore energy industries, it may fall behind nations that are focusing on developing renewable energy.
"To promote new wells is not the answer," he said.
Raymond S. Bradley, a professor at the climate system research centre at the University of Massachusetts, said in a phone interview, "there definitely should not be further developments. The priority, he said, is "to reduce our dependence on oil and gas as fast as possible, and the notion we need to do more exploration flies in the face of that."
On the campaign trail, only the Green Party has stated explicitly it believes the offshore industry must end in the next government's mandate.
The Liberal party acknowledges that overall emissions for the oil and gas sector must go down and said in an email Tuesday that if re-elected they would cap emissions and ensure they decline "at the pace and scale needed to get to net-zero by 2050, with five-year milestones along the way."
Asked about the offshore industry Wednesday, New Democrat Party Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party would end fossil fuel subsidies, but he didn't specify his party's position on ending new developments.
"We would prioritize investing in renewable energy, prioritize training workers and supporting workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow. We would use those same skills in retrofitting abandoned oil wells, in converting them into geothermal energy production," he said during a campaign stop in Essex, Ont.
"We are a workers’ party that is committed to fighting the climate crisis, and to do that we need to make sure workers are part of the solution.”
The Conservatives said in an email Tuesday the party is committed to supporting Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil industry by investing $1.5 billion in an "offshore rebound fund to spur the continued growth of the offshore oil industry, creating jobs in a sector that is critical to the province's future."
The party says that over time it sees a "lower carbon future" but adds, "we should make sure that democratic countries use Canadian resources and not resources from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or Russia."
Supporters of the offshore oil and gas industry in Atlantic Canada have argued that the fossil fuels produced from the underneath the Atlantic produce fewer carbon emissions per barrel than other oil producers around the world, including Alberta's oilsands.
However, the climate scientists interviewed said the relevant comparison for carbon emissions are with renewable energies like hydro, solar or wind power, and the differences among various crude oils and natural gas are minor in comparison.
Bradley, who has studied the impact of global warming on the Canadian Arctic, said the argument for less polluting forms of hydrocarbons "doesn't make sense" when there are existing alternatives.
The scientists acknowledge there would a significant economic impact from ending new developments offshore but argue that the next government can create transition programs to new industries and set up major retraining efforts.
The offshore industry is particularly critical in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the provincial government says the oil and gas and related services industries accounted for 20.6% of nominal GDP in 2019 and about two per cent of the province’s total employment.
"When an industry gets shut down, it's hard on people and families. And there needs to be a transition to other fields, such as offshore wind or other renewable resources that will hopefully make up a major portion of the future energy supply," MacDougall said.
Whoever is elected prime minister Monday will soon be joining nations at international climate negotiations in Scotland in November, where world leaders will face pressure to cut carbon pollution.
According to the most recent IPCC report, tropical cyclones are getting stronger and wetter, while Arctic sea ice is dwindling in the summer and permafrost is thawing. In addition, the kind of heat wave that used to happen only once every 50 years now happens once a decade. The IPCC reports are summaries of the latest climate science, modelling and projections created to advise national leaders.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.