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Environmental groups take aim at Alberta oil sands emissions

A report to be released Thursday says that emissions growth from Alberta’s oil sands will match Ontario’s reductions from a cap-and-trade plan.

Todd Korol/Reuters

Rising greenhouse emissions from Alberta's oil sands would swamp Ontario's effort to fight climate change through a carbon-pricing plan, says a report issued in advance of the provincial climate summit to be held in Quebec City next week.

Alberta's leader will be noticeably absent as premiers gather for a climate summit with an aim to fashion a national strategy on energy and the environment. Premier Jim Prentice will stay home to campaign in a provincial election and is expected to send senior bureaucrats in his place, Alberta officials said Wednesday.

But his absence won't deter the attacks on his province and its outsized contribution to Canada's climate challenge. Protests against the oil sands are planned in Quebec in advance of the summit hosted by Premier Philippe Couillard.

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In a paper to be released Thursday, Environmental Defence and Greenpeace Canada – two Toronto-based groups – conclude that expansion of oil sands production must be curtailed if Canada is to have any reasonable chance of meeting its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

They add that the anticipated increase in emissions from the oil sands would more than outweigh GHG reductions that Ontario might expect from a cap-and-trade plan that Premier Kathleen Wynne is expected to unveil in the coming weeks, perhaps in Quebec City. Ontario is aiming to reduce its emissions by 27.5 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, or a decline of 57 megatonnes a year. But it is not on pace to meet that target without new measures, such as its cap-and-trade plan.

"Continued expansion of the tar sands would lead to emission increases that would swamp emission reductions from Ontario, even if Ontario was successful in implementing policies – like carbon pricing – that would allow the province to meet its 2020 carbon pollution target," Dale Marshall, national program manager with Environmental Defence, said.

Mr. Prentice has promised to introduce a new "climate framework" if he wins re-election, though he has offered no details about what policies he would propose or whether his government would set new targets. The province is not on track to meet its own goal of slowing emissions growth from a "business as usual" trajectory. Its target is to increase GHG output by only 10 per cent between 2005 and 2020; the projected 55-megatonne rise mirrors nearly exactly Ontario's planned reduction.

Alberta is one of the few oil-exporting jurisdictions in the world with carbon regulations. Large industrial emitters – such as those in the oil sands – have regulated emission limits and must pay a $15-per-tonne levy if they exceed that target. The regulation was due to expire last year but has been extended until the end of June, when the provincial government will have to decide whether to impose more onerous rules on an industry suffering from an epic decline in crude prices.

In their paper, the two environmental groups use government data to illustrate how the growth in emissions in Alberta, and to a lesser extent, Saskatchewan, has driven Canada's poor performance over all. Since 1990, Alberta has contributed 73 per cent of Canada's GHG emission growth, and Saskatchewan 27 per cent, while both Ontario and Quebec have reduced emissions.

Under Environment Canada's projections – which don't include new action – Alberta's emissions would be roughly equal to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia combined by 2020. "Essentially, one province with 11 per cent of the population, driven by an industry representing just 2 per cent of Canada's GDP, would have levels of carbon pollution that are 93 per cent of emissions in the rest of the country," the Environmental Defence and Greenpeace Canada report said. "That's not a scenario that reflects any notion of fairness."

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More


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