Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

A licence to pollute dressed up in rhetorical petticoats

A licence to pollute dressed up in rhetorical petticoats

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
January 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST

Canada's conventional oil supplies are running down. They are being replaced with oil from Alberta's tar sands.

Each barrel of tar-sands oil produces two to three times more greenhouse-gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil. The result is obvious: Greenhouse-gas emissions from Alberta oil have been rising.

Alberta's attitude toward its "large final emitters," including the tar sands, has been a licence to pollute dressed up in rhetorical petticoats. It so remains following Premier Ed Stelmach's scandalously weak update this week of the province's climate change "strategy."

Oil company spokesmen hailed the Premier's announcement, and why not? It's the most weak-kneed climate-change effort anywhere in the advanced industrialized world.

Read the fine print. Canada under Stephen Harper is committed, at least rhetorically, to reducing emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020Ö. This is already a substantial weakening of previous commitments that were based on 1990 levels.

Nonetheless, it's 20 per cent by 2020 for Canada, with some provinces anxious to go further. U.S. politicians are almost all agreed on this target. Europeans want to move further faster, but they, too, will accept the 20 by 2020 formula.

What's the Alberta target outlined by Mr. Stelmach this week? A 14-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels by — wait for it — 2050! ÖBy then, almost every industrialized country (including fossil fuel producers such as Britain, Norway, Australia and the United States) are looking at 50-. to 80-per-cent reductions.

The Alberta rhetorical hokum goes further. The headline on the Stelmach press release reads: "Alberta to cut projected emissions by 50 per cent under new climate change plan."Ö

Chances are, the government will underline the 50-per-cent bit. But the key word is "projected." Why? Because projected emissions were going to soar. Cutting them in half still means more emissions by 2020 and only a 14-per-cent pullback by 2050.

Tar sands account for 19 per cent of Alberta's emissions; power plants, many driven by coal, 47 per cent. But investments in the tar sands, both committed and anticipated, are so huge that the emissions from tar sands will rise fast.

Alberta's response to this challenge has been a reduction in "intensity" of emissions. Under regulations that entered into force July 1, 2007, large final emitters have to reduce their intensity by 12 per cent yearly. By definition — and the Alberta government's documents state this clearly — such intensity targets, when output is soaring, only mean a slowing down of the increase of overall emissions.

In another bow to industry, companies can avoid even these intensity-reduction levels by paying $15 a tonne into a "technology" fund or buying credits from other companies.

Given the profits to be made with oil at $90 to $100 a barrel (check Suncor's recent results), companies will be in no hurry to meet those intensity targets. With this policy, the Alberta government has literally put itself over the barrel.

Mr. Stelmach mentioned carbon capture and storage, about which people have been talking for years. In Alberta, they've also been talking for years about a carbon pipeline. They've also been talking for years about clean coal technology. In short, the Alberta governments of Ralph Klein and now Ed Stelmach have been very, very good at talking and very, very slow at acting.

Large final emitters, including the expanding tar sands, account for 70 per cent of Alberta's emissions. You can cajole, bribe and encourage consumers and other sectors to reduce, but unless emissions decline from the industrial sector, not much will happen. You can even increase wind power sources, as Alberta has done, and the result will be useful but marginal if industrial emissions keep rising.

This climate change gap between flimsy rhetoric and real action is such a tragedy for a province that with vigorous leadership could literally lead the world in marrying resource exploitation to sustainable development, including reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The world could be beating a path to Alberta's door, if only the province had better political leadership and a business class that had seen opportunities instead of spending so many years obstructing, naysaying, threatening.

Alberta has 12 per cent of Canada's population and about a third of its emissions. The Stelmach government has now confirmed that Alberta's emissions will keep rising for many years, which means arithmetically that as other provinces pull down their emissions, Alberta's share of national emissions will rise in absolute and per capita terms.

This is leadership — from the perpetual governing party of Alberta that is set to extend its reign from 37 to 41 years? This is leadership in a province where the mountain pine beetle has crossed the Rockies from British Columbia and is attacking Alberta forests, where the mountain ice packs are melting with long-term and dire consequences for the soil and grasslands of Alberta, where water supplies are imperilled over the long term?

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