The intensified search for new energy supplies for the 21st century coincides with increased scientific knowledge about the effects of industrial activity on the environment. There is also a widespread consensus that the public and other stakeholders need to be consulted about decisions affecting them. Some related developments in Canada include:
- growing population in a number of key petroleum-producing areas
- competition among interests such as recreation, fishing, forestry and agriculture for use of publicly owned resources
- efforts to address the rights and needs of Aboriginal communities
- commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts, and
- increased development of renewable energy sources.
Every aspect of the petroleum industry – from exploration to the final use of its products – affects people, animals, plants, soil, air and water. Some effects are confined to a small area, while others have global implications. The effects of these activities, all of which are regulated by governments, must be balanced against the economic and social benefits the industry provides. The industry also contributes to scientific knowledge about the environment and encourages efficient use of energy. In some instances, crude oil and natural gas replace other energy sources such as coal that have greater environmental impacts.
Many environmental issues are difficult to resolve. In 1992, for example, Canada and other industrial countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty pledging to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global climate change – mainly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides—“at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system.” In fact, however, emissions continued to increase. The Canadian oil and gas industry reduced many of its own emissions, on a unit-of-production basis, but this was offset by increased production to meet domestic and export demand. According to Environment Canada, about one-sixth of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from petroleum production, transportation and refining processes. However, the majority of petroleum-related emissions occur at the point of final use, such as a furnace or vehicle engine.
The oil and gas industry is making significant progress in addressing other social and environmental issues. Many initiatives are under way to reduce effects on local and regional air quality, water resources, land and biological diversity. There have been demonstrated successes such as the reduction in flaring and venting of natural gas in Western Canada (which also reduced greenhouse gas emissions) and the reduced exposure of workers and the public to toxic benzene emissions. Consultation with stakeholders is now an integral part of companies’ planning and operations. Within the industry, information-sharing and environmental management systems help companies to keep pace with scientific knowledge and public expectations. Many companies subscribe to the goal of continuous improvement in social and environmental performance, recognizing that these ongoing commitments need to be improved constantly over time.