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Opinion: Alberta's plan guts efforts to cut greenhouse gases

Gordon Laxer

Winnipeg Free Press

December 10, 2015


It was quite a sight. The CEOs of Alberta's oilsands projects stood with NDP Premier Rachel Notley to announce Alberta's climate plan before the Paris Climate talks. The CEOs had the widest smiles.


No wonder. The province's climate leadership plan targets the 28 per cent of Alberta's greenhouse gases from power generation and transportation and leaves the 46 per cent of the province's emissions from the production of oil and gas almost scot-free.


Under Alberta's plan, oilsands and other oil and gas emissions can grow by 43 per cent and will cancel out the carbon pollution reductions in electrical power and driving over the next 15 years. Ordinary Albertans will reduce their carbon pollution so "big oil" can expand oilsands emissions and profits.


Coal-fired electrical power generation will be phased out over 15 years.


The much ballyhooed emissions cap "big oil" agreed to is not much of a cap because so many approved or planned oilsands projects have been cancelled in the past year because of very low oil prices and lack of pipeline capacity.


Further, allowing such enormous oilsands emissions will prevent Canada from doing its share to reach the ambitious goal Energy and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna set in Paris of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.


The oilsands emissions will also gut former federal NDP leader Jack Layton's climate bill.


In 2008 and 2010, the House of Commons passed Layton's Climate Change Accountability Act to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent from Canada's 1990 level of 592 million tonnes (MT) by 2050. Harper's unelected Conservative senators defeated the bill. But at the time, future Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Stéphane Dion -- who is now foreign affairs minister -- and other Liberal MPs voted for it bill. Now that they are the government, they should adopt those targets.


Unless it is ratcheted down much more, Alberta's new climate plan stands in the way. Cutting Canada's 1990 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 would leave 118 MT. That's only 18 MT above Alberta's oilsands cap of 100 MT. Sands emissions would take up 84 per cent of Canada's total emissions in 2050. Canadians would have to just about shut down all other oil uses -- such as driving to work -- so Alberta's oilsands output can grow.


With 4.2 million people, Alberta produces a little more in greenhouse gases than do Ontario and Quebec, which have a combined population of 22 million. That's five times as much per capita. And it isn't because Albertans drive much more. Driving produces only 11 per cent of Alberta's emissions.


Alberta's plan doubles the carbon tax on oil production to a measly $30 a tonne. It's a slap on the wrist. Alberta's climate plan is unlikely to change Washington's mind on the Keystone XL pipeline because while it could cap unlimited future oilsands growth, it won't make existing oilsands output appreciably cleaner.


Phasing out coal-fired electricity generation is a good step. But to reduce Alberta's carbon pollution enough to achieve Layton's target, there must be three other phase-outs over the next 15 years:


  • phase out Alberta's electricity generation by natural gas;

  • phase out oilsands production; and

  • phase out Canada's carbon energy exports (oil, natural gas and coal).


Canada has enough conventional, non-fracked oil and natural gas liquids to replace insecure oil imports in eastern Canada and supply all Canadians, but not enough to continue oil exports.


The cancellation of 1.3 million barrels of future oilsands production should be seen as the start of phasing out the oilsands. The oilsands can't be greened.


The way forward is to realize a unit of carbon energy saved produces more jobs than a unit of energy dug up, burned and emitted. The thousands of energy-related construction workers laid off in Alberta in the past year can better be employed retrofitting all buildings and constructing high-speed inter-city rail and LRT and other conservation measures.


Why should Alberta try for another oil boom? It would only lead to another bust by ever-tougher climate action by the rest of the world.


Getting the NDP's backing on expanding the oilsands lends more credibility than "big oil" got from previous Conservative Alberta governments. No wonder they smiled.


It's time to reboot Jack Layton's dream if we're to reach Canada's admirable new global warming goals.

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