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Rise in extreme wildfires linked directly to emissions from oil companies in new study


As fires blaze in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., new research has drawn a direct and measurable link between carbon emissions traced back to the world’s major fossil fuel producers and the increase in extreme wildfires across western Canada and the United States.

The peer-reviewed study, published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that 37 per cent of the total burned forest area in Western Canada and the United States between 1986-2021 can be traced back to 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.

“What we found is that the emissions from these companies have dramatically increased wildfire activity,” said Carly Phillips, co-author on the study and a researcher at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The findings build on previous studies that have quantified the contribution of those same 88 companies to the increase in global temperatures, and others that have shown how a climate-driven “vapour pressure deficit” (VPD) — a measure of the atmosphere’s drying power — has contributed to the increased area of forest burned in Western Canada and the U.S. 

Using modelling data, researchers were able to determine that emissions traced back to those 88 companies resulted in an additional 80,000 kilometres squared being burned. That’s an area larger than the size of Ireland.

Energy industry responds to research

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) responded to the study in an email to CBC News. 

“While our view may differ from the group who produced the study, what we can agree on is the need for continued work towards driving down greenhouse gas emissions,” said CAPP spokesperson Jay Averill.

A pumpjack draws out oil and gas from a well head as the sun sets near Calgary on Oct. 9, 2022. A spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said Canadian companies can reduce global carbon emissions by exporting more natural gas to replace coal production. (jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“Canada’s oil and natural gas industry is one of the largest investors in emissions reduction innovation in the country,” Averill said, citing carbon capture and electrification programs. 

Canadian companies have a role to play in reducing global carbon emissions by exporting more natural gas to countries who are relying on coal to power their economies, Averill added. 

Jatan Buch, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said in an email the research provides “strong evidence” of the impact of emissions traced back to specific fossil fuel companies.

Buch, who was not involved in the study, added that while research shows VPD is a leading driver in how far a wildfire spreads, other factors are also at play, including the precipitation and snowpack conditions early in the season, and the practices of prescribed burning and fire suppression.

WATCH | Why wildfire seasons are getting stronger and longer:

Why wildfire seasons are getting stronger and longer

John Vaillant has spent years investigating wildfires and the reasons today’s fires are more destructive. He uses photos and videos to show CBC’s chief correspondent Adrienne Arsenault what’s been happening.

Growing field of study

The research is part of a growing field of study known as attribution science, which attempts to measure how climate change directly affected recent extreme weather events.

Jennifer Baltzer, an associate professor in the department of biology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, said it’s becoming more common to see scientists make those connections.

“Last year, there were a number of studies that directly attributed the increase in emissions and associated climate warming with the massive heat waves that hit Europe,” said Baltzer, the Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change.

“I think we’re increasingly seeing scientists make stronger statements, which we need to be doing —- stronger statements about the fact that, yes, these changes in climate are human-caused and they are driving these massive catastrophes that we’re seeing around the world.”

Baltzer, who was also not involved in the study, said the findings aren’t surprising, given previous research.

But she said the data helps draw links between previous research and the emissions from the world’s largest fossil fuel companies. “It’s really important to demonstrate those links.”

Destroyed, burnt out building and a charred forest
A structure destroyed by recent wildfires is shown in Drayton Valley, Alta., last week. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

‘The accountability piece’

Phillips said drawing those links was part of her motivation, especially given that recent research and investigations have found oil companies knew about the threat of climate change decades ago but downplayed the dangers. 

“Part of what this study does is show the linkages between these companies, their emissions and climate impacts, which will hopefully allow them to be held accountable for their fair share of the costs associated with wildfire,” she said.

“I think the accountability piece for fossil fuel companies is really important and part of what makes this research unique. We know that historically industries have been held accountable for the risks of their products, whether it be tobacco or asbestos. And a big part of holding those companies accountable was research showing the linkages between their product and the impact.”

Christina Noel, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement: “The clear agenda of this group aside, America’s oil and natural gas industry is focused on delivering affordable, reliable energy while reducing emissions.”


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