Why we need an independent public inquiry

Part 12 in a series of 18 discussion papers

On December 16, 2021, the Minister of Natural Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, belatedly instructed the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) to conduct an internal study to determine what future level of oil production in Canada would be aligned with limiting warming to 1.5°C.  But the results of that study have not yet been released to the public. The promised 1.5°C-aligned analysis is expected to be made available to the public sometime in early 2023, possibly later this month.

That is the kind of study that should have been undertaken seven years ago, before the present Government on November 29, 2016, committed itself to the construction of a massive expansion of Canada’s pipeline capacity to export an additional 910,000 bpd of exported oil. At the very least, it should have been initiated three years ago, immediately after the IPCC issued its Special Report on Global Warming to 1.5°C in October 2018, which warned governments unequivocally that to stay on a pathway to keep temperatures within the 1.5°C warming threshold, global emissions must be cut 50% by 2030. The government’s refusal for over nine years to conduct a proper inquiry is unforgivable. 

But this crucial study should not be left to the CER. It is wrong to leave an inquiry on a question of this gravity, which is so irrevocably consequential for our children, to the CER, which is an agency of the Federal Government and entirely unaccountable to the public. The Minister assigned this task to an anonymous group of Federal Government employees and others selected and contracted by the government to provide information and expert evidence behind closed doors

The Minister’s Letter of December 16, 2021

The Minister’s December 16, 2021 letter to the CER instructed that it “undertake scenario analysis” relating to Canada’s future oil production: https://www.cerrec.gc.ca/en/about/newsroom/whatsnew/2021/canadasenergyfuturereportministerlettertocer16december2021.pdf.  It outlines the scope of the inquiry in three sentences. Here are the first two sentences:

… I am requesting, as the Minister responsible for the CER, that your organization undertake scenario analysis consistent with Canada achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 as soon as possible. This includes fully modelled scenarios of supply and demand of all energy commodities in Canada, including clean fuels, electricity, and oil and gas.

That part, by itself, does not address the problem. A scenario “consistent with Canada achieving net-zero emissions by 2050” requires only that our domestic emissions be reduced to “zero” by that date, which in theory could be achieved by relying on CCUS technology, modular nuclear reactors, and other future technologies to “remove” all upstream emissions from our oil production operations. They comprise only 15% of the emissions released by every barrel of oil we export.

That kind of “net-zero emissions by 2050” outcome in Canada would not require any reduction of our existing high levels of oil output. Our domestic emissions do not count the much larger volume of “downstream emissions” released by our exported oil, after it is refined and consumed as fuel in vehicles and emitted as tailpipe emissions (they amount to 85% of the emissions released by every barrel we producer and export). The first part of the Minister’s letter therefore does not indicate any departure from Canada’s existing policy which is to continue indefinitely our high levels of production. Continuing high levels of oil production exports by the world six major producers is not at all consistent with the world reaching net-zero by 2050.  

A third sentence of Wilkinson’s instructions raises the global dimension of the problem:

The modelling should reflect a global context in which the world achieves its Paris Accord goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, and should consider relevant uncertainties, including future trends in low-carbon technology and energy markets. 

This third sentence does appear to direct that the CER should examine the future decline in global oil consumption that will be essential to meet the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, and the timeline for those required reductions (which will show that deep reductions in oil production are essential as early as 2030 and 2040)  But the Minister’s proviso that the study should consider “energy markets” and “future trends in low-carbon technology” introduces important qualifications about the scope of the inquiry. It gives the CER enormous discretion to arbitrarily shape the results of their study to justify why Canada’s production can remain at higher levels. 

“Future trends in low-carbon technology”

Most significantly, instructions to consider “future trends in low-carbon technology” opens up the issue – a deeply conflicted question – about the possibility that envisioned future “negative emissions technologies” will allow the world to effectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere on a sufficiently vast scale to permit and justify much higher levels of oil, coal, and natural gas use for many more decades, or at least delay any immediate action to rapidly curb their use. 

The CER, in its Canada’s Energy Future 2020 report published two years ago on November 24, 2020, strongly promoted that view. It extolled the promise of future “emissions removal” technologies and asserted, without any detail or evidence, that residual emissions can be balanced by enhanced biological sinks and negative emissions technologies (see page 67 of the CER’s November 2020 report, found at  https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/en/data-analysis/canada-energy-future/2020/canada-energy-futures-2020.pdf .

Direct air removal technologies do not yet exist or exist only in experimental forms that may never prove viable or scalable. The CER has no special expertise on those far-reaching and speculative matters. It has no special expertise in climate science.

The Minister’s instructions to the CER on December 16, 2021, are given in broad terms but they include directives that could fatally compromise the scope and integrity of the study. Mr. Wilkinson’s qualifications appear to invite the CER to conclude that global oil demand is likely to remain high for another several decades (which is the publicly stated view of Mr. Wilkinson and of the oil industry and its proponents) and that future development of negative emissions technologies including “direct air removal” will eventually allow the world to “remove” the resulting higher levels of CO2 from the atmosphere and achieve “net-zero emissions” by 2050. That was the approach the CER laid out in its Canada’s Energy Future 2020 published two years ago, although at that time it offered no detailed analysis or evidence to substantiate the plausibility of those envisioned future technological solutions.

In conducting the kind of analysis the Minister has directed, the CER will be considering expert evidence on a series of highly complex issues relating climate science and also contentious issues about the future path of energy demand, the future pace of the uptake globally of renewable energy sources, and highly contentious questions about the future role that Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies might play in extending the timeline available to continue high levels of oil and natural gas use.   

The Minister’s decision to assign this consequential study to a closed process, allowing no opportunity to ensure that the evidence sources selected by the government are publicly examined and properly challenged, is a betrayal of the public interest.        

Why an independent public inquiry is essential

Under this arrangement, there will be no hearings, no cross-examination, no public record of proceedings, and no media access. There will be no lawful avenue for a Canadian citizen to scrutinize the sources and evidence that is being considered by the CER, or legally challenge the evidence, the process, or the findings. The CER will quietly decide behind closed doors what evidence it will look at, and what lines of inquiry it will ignore.

The issue at stake, the future path of Canada’s oil production to 2030, 2040, and 2050, is too deeply enmeshed in the conflicted economic and political interests of government and the oil industry to be entrusted to a secretive process out of the public view.

A proper examination of this crucial question must be done by an independent public inquiry process. That is our guarantee that the evidence will not be pre-selected or “cherry-picked”. There must be an opportunity for Canadians to challenge and cross-examine the experts, and an opportunity to call other expert witnesses who may disagree with those who have been selected by the government. The process must be able to test and challenge the experience and skills of those who are selected by the government as expert witnesses and scrutinize their affiliations and independence. The integrity of the process must also be protected by the basic principles of judicial independence, so we can be confident that the decision makers are not being influenced by pressures, discussions, or other sources of information that have not been tested in public view.