Total, Exxon announce stranded assets but some Canadians aren’t listening

Just as the long-predicted weather disasters are coming to pass before our eyes, so too are the stranded assets of the oil and gas industry.  In July, French fossil fuel multinational Total announced  “asset impairment charges” caused by low oil prices, and “in line with its new Climate Ambition announced on May 5, 2020 , which aims at carbon neutrality, Total has reviewed its oil assets that can be qualified as “stranded”, meaning with reserves beyond 20 years and high production costs, whose overall reserves may therefore not be produced by 2050. The only projects identified in this category are the Canadian oil sands projects Fort Hills and Surmont.” Total also cancelled its membership in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) , as had Teck Resources in May 2020 as part of the cost-cutting which saw it withdraw from the Frontier mine project in February.

As reported by Bloomberg News on August 5, a regulatory filing to the SEC by Exxon announced that low energy prices render as much as 20% of its oil and natural gas reserves as stranded assets, without book value. The  massive Kearl oil-sands mine near Fort McMurray Alberta was the only operation specifically named in Exxon’s filing, and a separate filing of Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil Ltd also singled out Kearl’s reserves as “imperiled”.

The Energy Mix summarized and commented on these developments in “Colossal fossil Total declares $9.3b in stranded assets in Alberta tar sands/oil sands” (July 31) and “Exxon rips up $30 Billion rebuilding plan, could declare stranded assets at Kearl Lake” (Aug. 19).   

A different future?

In sharp contrast to the companies’ announcements: the Alberta office of Price Waterhouse has posted a rosy consultants’ view in a series titled: Energy Visions 2020: What’s ahead for Canada’s oil and gas industry . Part 1, “The Evolving Role of oil and gas in the Energy Transition” acknowledges the current low demand, but hones to that persistent industry view: “Given the cyclical nature of the industry, we anticipate that within five years we’ll have moved into a period of recovery and growth. By then the current oversupply will likely have been drained.”  PWC’s prescription for Canadian oil and gas producers: “to differentiate themselves from global competitors, they’ll have to continue to focus on important differentiators aligned with environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) measures… Canadian oil and gas companies are already global leaders on some ESG principles. These include demonstrating high employee health-and-safety standards, a record for empowering and investing in the communities in which they operate, support for reasonable government carbon pricing and a commitment to new technologies to reduce emissions. But the challenge remains around how our industry communicates this story to investors.”

Part 2, “Finding Opportunity for Canada in the Global Energy Transition”  states: “Canadian energy companies have the opportunity to proactively address climate issues, take advantage of new opportunities where possible and find ways to create additional value for their communities, employees and shareholders.… We can and must raise our profile by highlighting all the positive achievements we’ve made in producing our energy more efficiently by using new technologies…”. Post Covid, “there may be opportunities for those companies that have the desire and balance-sheet strength to pursue new capital-intensive energy investments. Companies for which diversification isn’t an option must stay focused on their core business and continue to execute more efficiently, digitally and diversely than any global competitor……..We can expect that federal government support for all industries will come in some form of infrastructure investment, and the adoption of alternative energies will likely be part of the government’s infrastructure agenda.“

Finally, Part 3, “New World, New Skills: Preparing your workforce for the Energy Transition” discusses “The Transformation Imperative”, but focuses on automation and artificial intelligence as the disruptors. The report offers the general advice that employers need to create an “upskilling” organizational culture for their employees, while acknowledging that millennials rank the oil and gas as their least attractive career destination.   

Ontario Teachers’ pension fund invests in Abu Dhabi oil pipelines

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP), has outdone the May decision of AimCo in Alberta to invest in the Coastal GasLink pipeline,  with its announcement on June 23d that it is part of a consortium which has invested $10.1 billion  in a  gas pipeline network under development by the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.  Details appear in the Globe and Mail    and Energy Mix on June 23.  The consortium partners are Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, New York-based Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), and investors from Singapore, South Korea, and Italy.  The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan  is quoted by the Globe and Mail, stating: “This strategic transaction is attractive to Ontario Teachers’ as it provides us with a stake in a high-quality infrastructure asset with stable long-term cash flows, which will help us deliver on our pension promise.”

Advocacy group Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health responded with a scathing statement , which says:

“Investments like the OTPP’s in fossil fuel infrastructure are betting the hard-earned retirement savings of thousands of Ontario teachers against the long-term safety of our climate… Ensuring the growth of pensions in the long-term requires ending investments that lock-in fossil fuels and redeploying massive pools of finance into climate solutions like renewable energy and clean technology.”

Shift also links to a 25-page Toolkit for OTPP members on the risks of fossil fuel investment of their pension funds. (May 2020).   The OTPP Statement on Responsible Investing for 2019 is here.

Banks, fossil fuels, and a collapsing oil and gas industry

Rainforest Action Network is one of the advocacy groups which monitor fossil fuel investment on an ongoing basis: their Fossil Fuel Report Card for 2020: Banking on Climate Change  was released on March 18.  As it does every year, the report calculates how much money  has been invested in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 – in 2020, that has reached $2.7 Trillion.  The report also names and ranks the  banks behind the fossil fuel financing, which continue to be dominated by the big U.S. banks: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America.  Canada’s RBC ranks 5th in the world, having invested $141 billion since the Paris Agreement, wit  TD ranking 8th,  ScotiaBank 10th and Bank of Montreal ranked 16th.

Against this entrenched position in support of fossil fuels comes the plummeting price of oil and an industry in crisis.  An April 1 blog by the International Energy Agency explains the five key dimensions – including the Covid-19 crisis –  which explain that “The global oil industry is experiencing a shock like no other in its history”.  The panic setting in to the industry is captured in the Wall Street Journal article on April 14, “Thirst for Oil Vanishes, Leaving Industry in Chaos”.  The Carbon Tracker Initiative published “COVID-19 and the energy transition: crisis as midwife to the new” which states: “Fossil fuel demand has collapsed and may never surpass the peaks of 2019.  By the time the global economy recovers, all the growth may be met by renewable energy sources….. And once the peak is passed, the fossil fuel sector as a whole will face an eternal scrappy battle for survival, struggling with overcapacity and stranded assets, with low returns and high risks.”

Forbes is even more blunt in  “After COVID-19, The Oil Industry Will Not Return To “Normal” (April 5), which states:  “Canada and the United States are in a bind. There is a temptation to bail out oil, if only to keep people employed and ensure that these over leveraged companies don’t drag banks underwater…. Financial support for oil workers is an imperative, but support for the oil sector is a waste of money, whether the Saudis and Russians stay their course or not. Investments in shale and the Canadian oil sands are bound to become stranded assets, even if we return to “normal.” Oil’s days were numbered before coronavirus, and they will be numbered after it.”

The Canadian picture

Andrew Nikoforuk provides a Canadian view in “The other emergency is crashing oil and gas prices” in The Tyee (Mar. 18).  A Globe and Mail article on March 19 (updated Mar. 20)  outlines political calculations and lobbying, and predicts that the federal government will offer a multi-billion dollar post-Covid-19 rescue package to the oil and gas industry (although determined lobbying is also pushing for investment in clean energy instead.  Jim Stanford addresses the issue in We’re going to need a Marshall Plan to rebuild after Covid-19 ” (in Policy Options, April 2), and  writes: “ With the price of Western Canada Select oil falling to close to zero (and no reason to expect any sustained rebound to levels that would justify new investment), it is clear that fossil fuel developments will never lead Canadian growth again. ….. However, the other side of this gloomy coin is the enormous investment and employment opportunity associated with building out renewable energy systems and networks (which are now the cheapest energy option anyway). This effort must be led by forceful, consistent government policy, including direct regulation and public investment (in addition to carbon pricing). Another big job creator, already identified by Ottawa and Alberta, will be investment in remediation of former petroleum and mining sites.”  By April 9,  the Globe and Mail published “Climate, clean tech could take centre stage in federal economic recovery plans” .  The Narwhal argues  “Doubling down on Alberta’s oil and gas sector is a risk Canadians can’t afford to take”  (April 14).

Despite this, in what Common Dreams calls “a shameful new low”, the Alberta government announced a $1.5 Billion cash infusion to “kickstart” the Keystone XL Pipeline on March 31. Ian Hussey of the Parkland Institute reacted with “Alberta’s Keystone XL investment benefits oil companies more than Albertans” (April 2).  Bill McKibben reacted with outrage in “In the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Construction Is Set to Resume on the Keystone Pipeline” in The New Yorker .  Other reactions, circling back to the role of Canadian banks: “Reckless Keystone XL Decision by TC Energy Endorsed by JPMorgan Chase, Citi and Canadian Peers”  (Rainforest Alliance Network);  and “Bank of Montreal, RBC, Blackrock Among the Backers for Alberta’s ‘Reckless’ Keystone XL Subsidy” (The Energy Mix , April 5)  .

Answering Mark Carney: What are the climate plans for Canada’s banks and pension funds?

On December 18, the Bank of England was widely reported  to have unveiled a new “stress test” for the financial risks of climate change. That stress test is a proposal contained in an official BoE Discussion Paper,  2021 biennial exploratory scenario (BES) on the financial risks from climate change , open for stakeholder comments until March 2020.  Mark Carney, outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, has led the BoE to a leadership position on this issue in the financial community and will continue  in his new role as United Nations special envoy on climate action and climate finance in 2020.  In a December BBC interview reviewing his legacy, he warned the world yet again about stranded assets and asked: “A question for every company, every financial institution, every asset manager, pension fund or insurer: what’s your plan?”

What are the climate plans for Canada’s pension funds ?

shift action pension report 2019In their June 2019 report, Canada’s Pension Funds and Climate Risk: A Baseline For Engagement  , ShiftAction concludes: “Canadian pension funds are already investing in climate solutions, but at levels that are far too low relative to the potential for profitable growth, consistent with levels required to solve this challenge.” The report provides an overview, and importantly, offers tips on how to engage with and influence pension fund managers.

Since then…..

The sustainability performance of  the  Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) continues to be unimpressive, as documented in  Fossil Futures: The Canada Pension Plan’s failure to respect the 1.5-degree Celsius limitreleased in November ccpaFossilfuture2019 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis-B.C. (CCPA-BC).  According to the CPPIB Annual Report for 2019, (June 2019) the CPPIB is aiming for full adoption of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures recommendations by the end of fiscal 2021 (page 28).

Canada’s second largest pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), announced in November that CEO Michael Sabia will retire in February 2020 and move to the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. The press release credits Sabia with leading the Caisse to a position of global leadership on climate change, beginning in 2017 with the launch of an investment strategy which aims to increase low-carbon assets and reduce the carbon intensity of investment holdings by 25%. In 2019, the Caisse announced that its portfolio would be carbon-neutral by 2050.   Ivanhoé Cambridge ,the real estate subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt, has a stated goal to increase low-carbon investments by 50% by the year 2020 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the year 2025. In December 2019, Ivanhoé Cambridge announced that it had issued a $300 million  unsecured green bond to finance green initiatives – the first real estate corporation in Canada to do so. Shawn McCarthy reviewed Sabia’s legacy in “Canada’s second largest pension fund gets deadly serious about climate crisis”, in Corporate Knights in December.

AIMCo, the Alberta Investment Management Corporation is a Crown Corporation of the Government of Alberta, with management responsibility for the public sector pensions funds in Alberta, along with other investments. In November 2019, the Alberta government passed Bill 22, which unilaterally transfers pension assets from provincial worker plans to the control of AIMCo (see a CBC summary here ). The Alberta Federation of Labour and the province’s large unions protested in a joint statement, “Union leaders tell UCP: ‘The money saved by Albertans for retirement belongs to them, not to you!’” (Nov. 20) . The unions state: “we’re worried that what you’re attempting to do is use other people’s money to create a huge slush fund to finance an agenda that has not yet been articulated to the public – and which most people would not feel comfortable using their life savings to support.” And in December 2019, those worries seem to come true as AIMCo announced  its participation in a consortium to buy a 65% equity interest in the controversial LNG Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project from TC Energy Corporation. Rabble.ca reported on the demonstrations at AIMCo’s Toronto offices regarding the Coastal Gas project in January .

On January 8, the Toronto Star published  “Toronto asks pension provider: How green are our investments?” – revealing that the city has asked for more details from the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement fund (OMERS). OMERS, with assets of over $100 billion, manages the pension savings of a variety of Ontario public employees, including City of Toronto and Toronto Police, Fire, and Paramedics. On January 8, OMERS announced the latest consolidation of Toronto pension plans with its consolidation of the Metropolitan Toronto Pension. Its Sustainable Investment Policy statement is here .

What are the climate plans for Canada’s private Banks?  

The 10th annual edition of Banking on Climate Change: the Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card was released in October 2019 by Banktrac, Rainforest Alliance Network and others . It states that $1.9 trillion has been invested in fossil fuels by the world’s private banks since the Paris Agreement, led by JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America. Canadian banks also rank high in the world: RBC (5th), TD (8th), Scotiabank ( 9th), and Bank of Montreal (15th).  Also in October, the World Resources Institute green-targets2published Unpacking Green Targets: A Framework for Interpreting Private Sector Banks’ Sustainable Finance Commitments , which includes Canadian banks in its global analysis and provides guidance on how to understand banks’ public documents.  “How Are Banks Doing on Sustainable Finance Commitments? Not Good Enough”  is the WRI blog which summarizes the findings.

Since then….

On September 14, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce announced the release of their first climate-related disclosure report aligned with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. Building a Sustainable Future highlights the CIBC’s governance, strategy, and risk management approach to climate related issues. It provides specific metrics and targets, especially for its own operational footprint, but also a commitment: “to a $150 billion environmental and sustainable finance goal over 10 years (2018-2027).”

Scotiabank also announced climate-related changes in November, including “that it would “mobilize $100 billion by 2025 to support the transition to a lower-carbon and more resilient economy”; ensure robust climate-related governance and reporting; enhance integration of climate risk assessments in lending, financing and investing activities; deploy innovative solutions to decarbonize operations; and establish a Climate Change Centre of Excellence “to provide our employees with the tools and knowledge to empower them to act in support of our climate commitments. This includes training and education, promoting internal collaboration, and knowledge and information sharing.”  Their 4-page statement on climate commitment  is here. Their  2018 Sustainable Business Report (latest available) includes detailed metrics and description of the bank’s own operations, including that they use an Internal Carbon Price of CAD$15/tonne CO2, to be reviewed every two years.

RBC, ranked Canada’s worst fossil-fueling bank in the 2019 edition of Banking on Climate Change , released a 1-page statement of their Commitment to Sustainable Finance (April 2019)  and an undated Climate Blueprint  with a target of $100 billion in sustainable financing by 2025.  However, in their new research report,  Navigating the 2020’s: How Canada can thrive in a decade of change , the bank characterizes the coming decade as “Greener, Greyer, Smarter, Slower”, but offers little hope of a change in direction. For example, the report states “ Canada’s natural gas exports can also play a role in reducing emissions intensity abroad. LNG shipments to emerging economies in Asia, where energy demand is growing much faster than in Canada, can help replace coal in electricity production, just as natural gas is doing here in Canada. …As climate concerns mount, Canada’s challenge will be to better sell ourselves as a responsible, cleaner energy producer.”

European Investment Bank stops fossil funding; Bank of Canada acknowledges the dangers of stranded assets

european investment bank energy_lending_policy_enThe long-awaited decision came on November 13, when the European Investment Bank (EIB) issued a press release announcing that “ We will stop financing fossil fuels and we will launch the most ambitious climate investment strategy of any public financial institution anywhere.”  Also, “…..The EIB will work closely with the European Commission to support investment by a Just Transition Fund. The EIB will be able to finance up to 75% of the eligible project cost for new energy investment in these countries. These projects will also benefit from both advisory and financial support from the EIB.”  The Guardian summarizes the policy here ; details are in the full document, EIB Energy Lending Policy: Supporting the energy transformation.

The decision ends a long and contentious review process which received more than 149 written submissions and petitions signed by more than 30,000 people.  National members of the EU negotiated and compromised – the German government had been expected to abstain from the vote but ended by supporting the measure.  A press release from WWF-Europe  is generally supportive, stating “All public and private banks must urgently follow suit” – while pointing out that the decision postpones the end of financing for gas projects until 2021, and allows for further financing for any gas infrastructure that could potentially transport so-called “green gas”. A summary in Clean Energy Wire quotes Claudia Kemfert, climate economist at the German Institute for Economic Research, who calls the EIB decision “a game changer”, and says, “Even if there’s still a backdoor for fossil gas included, this is an important and necessary step in the right direction.”

Bank of Canada acknowledges climate change risks to the economy

On November 19, the Bank of Canada published its most complete statement to date about the transitions and risks which climate change will bring, in Researching the Economic Effects of Climate Change , a report prepared by Miguel Molico, senior research director at the bank’s Financial Stability Department.  On November 21, the Governor of the Bank of Canada followed up on this by raising the issue of climate change and the risk of stranded assets during an address to the Ontario Securities Commission .  The National Observer summarizes the development in “Bank of Canada warns of stranded assets and an abrupt transition to clean economy” (Nov. 23).

Also in Canada, on November 19, the Institute for Sustainable Finance was launched Housed at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario : “ The Institute for Sustainable Finance (ISF) is the first-ever cross-cutting and collaborative hub in Canada that fuses academia, the private sector, and government with the singular focus of increasing Canada’s sustainable finance capacity.” A more formal statement comes in the Institute’s launch report:  Green Finance: New Directions in Sustainable Finance Research & Policy  which states: “the Institute will span a continuum of expertise from across varying disciplines, including finance, economics, environmental studies, political science and others, in order to foster innovative research, education, external collaborations and partnerships. The Institute’s mandate is threefold:

  •  Generate innovative and relevant research on sustainable finance and effectively communicate this research to all pertinent stakeholders.
  • Serve as a platform for collaboration between government, academia and industry.
  • Provide educational opportunities and develop capacity in the field of sustainable finance.”

The Green Finance report summarizes the discussions by financial experts at a conference by the same name, held on June 14-15, 2019, following the release of the Report of the government’s Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance – Mobilizing Finance for Sustainable Growth.  To help readers who are not financial experts,  the Institute website offers useful “primers” to explain some fundamental concepts in sustainable finance, including  Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, Divestment, and Transition Bonds. Not to be confused with Just Transition funding, the primer explains that “Transition Bonds” are corporate financing tools, and the companies who issue them must use the proceeds to fund a business transition towards a reduced environmental impact or reduction in carbon emissions. ( The example given is that a coal-mining company could issue a  transition bond to finance efforts to capture and store carbon.)

Institute for sustainable financeAs one of its first actions, the ISF established the Canadian Sustainable Finance Network (CSFN)  an independent formal research and educational network for academia, industry and government to bring together a talented network of university faculty members and relevant members from industry, government and civil society.  A list of members, here , includes multiple faculty from twelve Canadian universities, one from Yale in the U.S., and other individual academics from universities which are not institutional members (including UBC, HEC Montreal, and Memorial University).