The “Emissions Shell Game” – the Production Gap and why we need to Keep it in the Ground

A shell game is where people move shells (or cups, or whatever) around on a table, with an object under just one of them – you have to pick the shell that has the pea under it. The key is that “it is almost always a confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud.”  And that is accomplished by having you pay attention to the wrong thing.

Some people take issue with this inflammatory (pun intended) term regarding climate change, but what are the elements of a shell game? There are two keys; one is – ‘look over here (at emissions) while the action is over there (production).’ The other is – it is a fraud.

The production gap is the difference between our emission reduction commitments / actions, and our production of oil and gas. The gap is massive. Take Canada, for instance, where we are finally making more lofty emissions reduction commitments (despite being the worst amongst the G7), but at the same time openly intend to increase oil and gas production by 17 and 18% respectively.


While Canada is planning to reduce emissions by “40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030,” and then “net-zero emissions by 2050,” we are also planning to increase oil and gas production by 17/18% by 2040. All major oil and gas producing countries are planning to do this – reduce emissions while increasing production.

How can this be?

It is done on the basis that oil produced here (as was a key issue re TMX and other projects) need not be considered because “it will be counted in the jurisdiction where it is burned.” On this basis we (Canada and the world) continue to produce more and more oil and gas while setting and missing targets.

It is impossible for the world to reduce carbon emissions going into the atmosphere if every oil producing nation is saying they’ll reduce emissions but ramping up production.

The TMX Example

The argument here can be summarized as “the emission will be counted in the jurisdiction in which they are burned.” In 2014 in Ruling No. 25 the National Energy Board (NEB) dismissed concerns that TMX would enable an increase in oil and gas production with a number of arguments which were concluded by saying “[t]he Board agrees with Trans Mountain that downstream effects are more effectively assessed and regulated by the jurisdictions where the use occurs” and concluding the ruling with “the end use of oil is managed by the jurisdiction within which that use occurs.”

That decision was relied on throughout all the future challenges to TMX, including NEB Ruling No. 29, Tsleil-Waututh Nation v. Canada (National Energy Board), 2016 FCA 219 (CanLII), (para. 96) and the post-federal purchase NEB Ruling No. 30,  Raincoast Conservation Foundation v. Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 224, and presumably here: Olivier Adkin-Kaya, et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, et al., 2020 CanLII 17606 (SCC).

The critical importance of this became apparent to me in 2019-20, while litigating TMX. This position was repeated and adhered to throughout all subsequent NEB and federal and Supreme Court of Canada litigation, despite the massive changes in our view of climate change and climate science, and despite one instance which was different, Energy East, in 2015, which happened to go through the new PM’s Riding, and where suddenly downstream impacts were considered in a seemingly non-repeatable manner.

This is the hinge – the view which supports all new oil and gas development globally – that we don’t have to assess it in terms of production, because the oil produced will be assessed for its climate impacts where it is burned.

Except – it might not. In fact, many places in the world are not doing a good job of climate accounting for or reducing emissions, Canada included.

The rationale for increasing production while committing to reduce emissions

The USA’s position has been most clearly articulated in a 2020 Brookings Institute article by Samantha Gross, titled “The United States can take climate change seriously while leading the world in oil and gas production.”

Gross starts by pointing out that “U.S. oil and natural gas production has soared in the past decade,” and “[t]he United States is now the world’s leading producer of both oil and natural gas.”

Gross then argues that while “[e]liminating that production seems like a good way to eliminate emissions,” … “cutting back domestic oil and gas production without an equally ambitious focus on demand will just increase U.S. imports, rather than reduce consumption.”

This is a key argument in defence of this policy, as is the notion that the USA (Canada) could lose its economic advantage which could actually cause emissions to go up, because oil would just be imported to meet demand, and that oil may have a bigger upstream footprint.

What Gross doesn’t acknowledge is – it may have a smaller footprint. And that is a variable which can be controlled.

Gross closes by confronting one counter argument, saying “[o]ne could argue that reducing U.S. oil and gas production would increase global oil and gas prices and thus decrease their use globally.” Yes. But Gross then says “[t]his might be true for a while, but the global oil market has a history of strong price swings, as high prices bring out more production that sends prices crashing down again. It’s unlikely that decreased U.S. production would keep prices high enough for long enough to significantly decrease global demand.” But, if we’re actually planning to reduce emissions, in practice, that has to happen.

We have known about this for DECADES

So, okay, we are amping up production of oil and gas while promising to tackle global climate change by reducing our national emissions. And maybe that’s not the right approach. But is there a shell game here, a “confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud”?

We have known about climate change, and the need to reduce GLOBAL emissions, for literally decades. In 1985 Carl Sagan made a presentation to Congress which is as informative and relevant today as it was then. And as ignored.

There has been tons of research on “they knew” by Ben Franta, Phd, and others, as well as early oil industry disinformation on global warming. Our governments have known about climate change for decades. In the 90’s they promised to reduce emissions while they increased production and watched global emissions rise. In the 2000’s they promised to reduce emissions while they increased production and watched global emissions rise. In the 2010’s they promised to reduce emissions while they increased production and watched global emissions rise. In the 2020’s they promise to reduce emissions while they increased production and watched global emissions rise? That’s correct.

The Production Gap

How do we know this? Handily, we have the Production Gap, 2021 Report, Summary of Key Findings which states “As countries set net-zero emission targets, and increase their climate ambitions under the Paris Agreement, they have not explicitly recognized or planned for the rapid reduction in fossil fuel production that these targets will require. Rather, the world’s governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”


But we are told to believe that our leaders have good intentions, and are just making an innocent mistake, or are simply unable to get emissions to go down. That is not believable – it is a shell game, a “confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud,” and we are being defrauded of our future, our children’s futures, many people of their lives, and many more to come.

The only way to tame global emissions is to focus on production instead of emissions. Every oil, gas, and coal producing nation must reduce production according to their emissions commitments. For Canada that’s 40% below 2005 by 2030.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s