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What Are Oil Giants Doing to Stop Climate Change? Media Won’t Ask the Hard Questions

A recent review shows few outlets dare to press the ‘Big Five.’

Sean Holman 3 Sep

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

A version of this piece appears today in the Columbia Journalism Review.

When oil giant Total SA announced this summer a write down of US$7 billion in Canadian oilsands assets, the French company said long-term development of those projects wouldn’t be consistent with its climate commitments. That rationale was reflected in press coverage of the company’s move.

However, when the Globe and Mail interviewed the head of the country’s largest heavy crude oil producer following Total’s announcement, the resulting article quoted Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. president Tim McKay as blaming recent oilsands divestments on the “stigma” attached to such projects.

Left unmentioned in the Globe piece was the fact Total seemed less concerned with that stigma and more concerned that demand for its Canadian reserves beyond 20 years would likely shrivel up. That worry is well-founded, with the International Energy Agency forecasting that efforts to address a warming planet would sharply cut the world’s demand for crude from almost 97 million barrels per day in 2018 to just over 50 million barrels per day in 30 years’ time.

But in Canada — the world’s fourth largest oil producer and the highest greenhouse gas emitter per person among the G20 — the press barely seems to mention this industry contraction when it reports on some of the sector’s most powerful players.

When I examined how many of the country’s newspapers covered Canada’s so-called Big Five oil companies during a two-month period earlier this year, I found 295 unique articles mentioning Canadian Natural Resources, Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd. or Husky Energy Inc.

After eliminating stories that named the Big Five but weren’t directly about the fossil fuel business — such as unrelated stock market updates or a report about traffic lights being installed near one of their properties — I counted 173 pieces, just 15 of which explicitly mentioned there could be less future oil demand. One even quoted Suncor’s president and chief executive officer Mark Little as saying “we don’t think that’s a solution” in reaction to demands to cut carbon emissions by curtailing production.

That statement was newsworthy enough to top a story in the National Post, a competitor to the Globe. Three days later, Little said during a fourth-quarter earnings call, “I think people are concerned about lots of companies talking about growing oil production forever. We know that can’t happen.” However, his quote appears to have gone unreported by the news media.

That’s one of many shortfalls I found in how Canadian newspapers have reported and commented on some of the world’s most climate wrecking companies. At a time when financiers are figuring out that doing business with oil companies might be bad business, those papers too often don’t seem to have kept up with the markets. And the result is a journalistic failure that is contributing to the climate crisis rather than soberly assessing it.

The Big Five are so-named because, according to the Canadian government, they are responsible for over half of the country’s crude oil production, which totalled an estimated 4.6 million barrels per day in 2018. In the same year, the Big Five directly and indirectly emitted 82.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from those operations, which is the equivalent of heating 135.6 per cent of the 14.3 million private dwellings in Canada for a year.

As a result of such emissions, the Carbon Disclosure Project included Canadian Natural Resources, Husky and Suncor among the 100 companies linked to 71 per cent of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions released between 1988 and 2015. That’s why I wanted to examine how Canada’s mainstream media covered the Big Five, with the period from Jan. 9 to March 11 providing an important chance to do so.

That period ended with the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic. But it began with Cenovus announcing its “long-term ambition” to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Shortly after, the world’s largest investment manager BlackRock made headlines when its founder told chief executive officers the climate crisis would cause a “significant reallocation of capital” in the near future — “and sooner than most anticipate.” Seventeen days later, on Jan. 31, CNBC’s Jim Cramer declared he was “done with fossil fuel stocks,” comparing them to tobacco companies. And, three days after that, the Financial Times estimated aggressive action on global heating would result in $900 billion in stranded fossil fuel assets, with firms such as Imperial and Suncor most at risk.

So it wasn’t surprising when, on Feb. 10, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was quoted as saying “no reasonable person” could deny there would be a “gradual shift” away from “hydrocarbon-based energy” — something one prominent local newspaper columnist described as a “crucial change of tone” for his government, which is cultishly committed to the oil and gas industry.

That means, when combined with a controversial and now shelved proposal to build a huge new oilsands mine in Alberta, Canadian newspapers had at least six major news hooks to cover the intersection between the climate crisis and the Big Five during this period. That period also coincided with the Big Five’s fourth quarter earnings calls, which can sometimes provide journalists with an opportunity to question the company’s executives and hold them to account. But what I found was too many missed opportunities.

My analysis mined the Canadian Newsstream database, which includes the Canadian Press national news agency, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star, as well as 305 other different English language newspapers, including most of the country’s major metropolitan dailies. The 173 articles I found included briefs, reports, columns, editorials, op-eds and advertorials; they reported directly on the Big Five, recommended investing in them or else referenced them as part of covering the oil and gas sector or another company within it.

Most came from journalists at the Globe and Mail (31 per cent), the Canadian Press (20 per cent), the National Post (11 per cent) and the Calgary Herald (eight per cent). Meanwhile, 44 per cent of those articles’ journalistic bylines came from Calgary, where the Big Five are headquartered, while 35 per cent came from Toronto. So, despite the Big Five’s importance, many newspaper journalists in other parts of the country didn’t seem to pay them or other parts of the fossil fuel industry much attention.

In part, that’s likely because decades of cutbacks, layoffs and mismanagement have emptied local Canadian newsrooms, gutting the breadth and depth of their reporting. But it’s also because reporters and columnists on the business beat were among the few newspaper journalists in the country who seemed interested in covering, commenting on or even just mentioning the Big Five. They accounted for 77 per cent of the journalistic bylines above the 173 articles examined, even though the impact of the Big Five reaches far beyond oil fields, boardrooms and trading floors and into many other beats, from politics and the environment to health and Indigenous issues.

That said, climate change was a routine part of that coverage. Thirty-four per cent of the articles mentioned terms associated with that phenomenon. But just nine of those articles featured an interview with an environmentalist. And only seven included information about the environmental impact of the climate crisis, which was usually limited to a cursory mention of how much the world’s temperature could increase.

The result was a failure to confront those articles’ readers with the consequences of the climate crisis and, by extension, the fossil business. Since the New Year, those consequences have included Australian bushfires that killed or displaced almost three billion animals and a Siberian heatwave that resulted in “wildfires, loss of permafrost and an invasion of pests” in the region. And that doesn’t account for an ever-lengthening cavalcade of catastrophic forecasts about what our future will look like, which could include the extinction of one-third of the planet’s plant and animal species and societal collapse.

Yet, in the articles I analyzed, I also saw how Postmedia, the country’s largest newspaper chain, continues to publish commentary boosting fossil fuels and blasting climate action. “Lots more oil still to come,” read the headline over one such column. Another favourably quoted Kenney describing Greta Thunberg and like-minded activists as the “mud-hut crowd,” while urging the public to “take concrete measures to reduce emissions instead of shutting down modernity, basically.” And an op-ed by a senior fellow from the free market Fraser Institute stated “many people, including experts, sincerely disagree that human-caused climate change is analogous to a ship heading for an iceberg,” arguing that “sustainable” emissions reductions will only “occur with new technologies that emerge from voluntary industry and customer decisions.”

At least some Postmedia journalists must know how wrongheaded those statements are. After all, when Total announced its oilsands write down, the National Post published a video on July 31 that wondered, “Is the end-game near for oil?” As part of answering that question, the video stated, “stringent climate change policies, [the] rise of natural gas and renewable energies will dampen demand for oil over the long term.” Similarly, the Globe published an article on the same day that reported “some analysts have projected the world could hit peak [oil] demand this decade, if it hasn’t already.”

Nevertheless, this wider environmental and economic context too often seems lost when Canadian newspapers narrow their coverage to individual oil companies, specifically the Big Five. I found little evidence of journalists pressing the Big Five’s presidents and chief executive officers about their own dim future and their responsibility for forcing such a future on everyone else.

Canadian newspapers, and the news media as a whole, must do better than this. The Big Five and their leaders deserve to be held to account in the same way as any other powerful institution or individual in our society should be. Journalists across Canada, regardless of their beats and irrespective of the size of their outlets, should be asking more and harder questions about what those companies are doing to avert climate disaster.

The consequence of not doing so is that the Big Five’s chairs, board members and executives continue being even more insulated from the growing global pressure against the oil and gas industry than they already are in Alberta, the heart of climate denialism in Canada. Journalists are often said to be responsible for the first draft of history. And Canadian newspapers need to get on the right side of it.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics

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