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Halt to Teck Frontier mine signals new fossil fuel exploration just not worth it

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Image: Nelson de Witt/Flickr

Teck corporation's decision not to proceed with the $21-billion Frontier mine project may signal the beginning of the end for fossil fuel exploration and development. Market forces, lender resistance and public opposition already block development. Now global civil society organizations are investigating how to word an international agreement that places strict limits on finding and producing fossil fuels.

On February 4, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published a paper by three internationally renowned environmentalists, proposing a "fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty": "Just like the accumulation of nuclear weapons, the continued buildup of carbon in the atmosphere -- caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels -- is a clear and present danger to life on Earth," begins the document from Tzeporah Berman, Peter Newell and Matthew Stilwell.

The authors say that, "Taken together, coal, oil and gas account for close to 80 per cent of all carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty is needed as urgently now as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."  

"Non-proliferation" in both cases means a global halt to production. Ending exploration is the first of three points in the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Says the Bulletin paper:

  • "Non-proliferation would prevent new exploration and production. This prevents the addition of unnecessary fossil fuels that lock in catastrophic climate disruption, and it protects investments, workers and communities from becoming stranded."
  • "Disarmament would phase out existing stockpiles and production to align fossil fuel supply with internationally agreed climate goals in the Paris Agreement."
  • "Peaceful use of technology would fast track the transfer of clean, renewable energy to poorer nations, enable a just transition for workers and communities, and support economic diversification in fossil fuel dependent countries ... "

Halting production as called for in the groundbreaking 2017 Lofoten Declaration (named for Norway's northern Lofoten islands) may seem extreme. The declaration says, "Equally as critical as reducing demand and emissions is the need for immediate and ambitious action to stop exploration and expansion of fossil fuel projects and manage the decline of existing production in line with what is necessary to achieve the Paris climate goals." Environmentalists now see this as an existential goal in the climate crisis.

"A global transition to a low carbon future is already well underway," says the Lofoten Declaration. "Continued expansion of oil, coal, and gas is only serving to hinder the inevitable transition while at the same time exacerbating conflicts, fuelling corruption, threatening biodiversity, clean water and air, and infringing on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and vulnerable communities." By September 2019, 530 organizations in 76 countries had signed the declaration, up from 220 civil society groups when it was announced in 2017.

Saudi Arabia's recent decision to sell oil at US$30 a barrel demonstrates the hazards of allowing fossil fuel producers and marketers to control the world economy. And actually, fossil fuel sellers seem to be sinking under their own weight. Giant investors like the World Bank, the Vatican and BlackRock have announced they will no longer fund fossil fuel exploration. Nor will big banks and their mutual funds invest in fossil fuel company stocks or bonds.

At 350.org, the global divestment campaign reached a new milestone in September 2019, with the announcement that, "Over 1110 institutions with more than USD $11 trillion in assets under management have committed to divest from fossil fuels ... Divestment, once strictly a moral call to action, is now also seen as the only prudent financial response to climate risk."   

Nevertheless, exploration is the business model for fossil fuel industries, so explore they must, even in the face of oversupply -- if only for the tax breaks and incentives. The UN found that, "Governments are planning to produce about 50 per cent more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2 C, and 120 per cent more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 C ... "

In their Bulletin article, Berman, Newell and Stillwell chose a vivid metaphor: "Our current path, in which we expand the production of fossil fuels, is akin to the fire department showing up with gasoline to save a planet on fire. This cannot continue."

Controlling supply is easier than trying to control emissions, they say. "Focusing on the production and supply of fossil fuels ... limits the potential for 'locking-in' future production, emissions and global heating. It liberates the resources needed to fast-track other reliable, affordable and low-carbon solutions."

As for Albertans and others who depend on a fossil fuel economy, the authors suggest they'll be employed in the conversion to a clean economy, paid by reallocating funds now used to "prop up" oil companies. Oil Change International estimates those funds at US$444 billion a year, for the G20 countries. That kind of money could advance renewable energy dramatically towards the 2030 deadline.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.

Image: Nelson de Witt/Flickr

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