The Alberta oilsands and their mushrooming carbon emissions have become an easy target for climate change activists around the world.
And this summer, with all the wildfires and droughts stretching from Alaska through Western Canada to California, climate change is very much a hot topic.
So it is not surprising that as propaganda wars go, climate change activists seem to be winning this one — a victory that could have the greatest impact on the future of the oilsands.
Carbon emissions cause the greenhouse effect, which traps heat in the atmosphere and eventually warms the planet.
Bill McKibben, director of 350.org, an influential U.S group that has taken the campaign for carbon emission reductions to the streets, often cites the Alberta tarsands as “the largest carbon bomb on the planet.”
In his book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, McKibben wrote: “The Keystone pipeline would also be a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place in which we are all indigenous.”
Movie star Leonardo DiCaprio’s tweet that he was opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline reached more than 13 million people and was retweeted more than 300 times.
Even U.S President Barack Obama has cited greenhouse gases spewing from the oilsands as an impediment to approval of the pipeline.
Key institutions and figures — the International Energy Agency, Bloomberg Financial, Bank of England governor Mark Carney — warn that unless two-thirds of currently known fossil fuel reserves are left in the ground, we face a climate catastrophe
In Britain, the Guardian is urging ordinary citizens, politicians, scientists and business leaders to take action to prevent climate change, which it calls the “biggest story in the world.” One of the campaign’s key strategies is trying to convince charitable foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to divest itself of holdings in fossil fuel companies.
In Norway, industrialist Jens Ulltveit-Moe is pulling out of oil and gas investment and putting his money into renewable fuels. His company once owned a profitable fleet of tankers that transported oil from Norway’s offshore drilling operations around the world.
Now, Ulltveit-Moe worries that Norway’s Arctic oil reserves will become a stranded asset, which would be financially devastating. “Neither I nor anyone else actually knows if this will happen, but as a businessman looking at investment, the risk of it happening is high enough that I am not interested in making the investment,” he said during a conference on climate and energy in Norway earlier this year.
Since about 2008, surveys show, news media coverage of greenhouse gas emissions outranks any other environmental concern linked to oilsands development.
Oilsands operations have to use a lot of carbon-based energy, which produces greenhouse gas emissions, because the puck-hard bitumen is so difficult to recover and process. And while the mining sites are usually fingered as the chief producer of this dirty oil, the in situ projects have similar problems.
Technically called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), this method involves driving steam underground to melt the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface and piped out for further upgrading. Natural gas is used to heat the steam, and scientists have found that in many cases this is not efficient because the energy of the bitumen produced is less than the energy of the natural gas used to extract it.
“The economic and environmental costs can be large given the amount of steam required,” Stephen Larter, a geosciences professor at the University of Calgary, and his colleague Ian Gates, a chemical and petroleum engineer, wrote in a 2013 edition of Fuel, an academic journal. “The data suggests that at the extreme, some operations are actually not net energy generating — i.e., the energy injected via steam exceeds the recovered chemical energy in the retrieved bitumen.”
SAGD does make economic sense because natural gas is much cheaper than bitumen. But in terms of energy and carbon emissions, it costs much more to produce the bitumen than it’s worth.
Scientists with the Council of Canadian Academies raised the same alarm in an extensive report earlier this year.
“In situ operations, which are set to account for much of the new growth in production, are a major source of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions,” the report states. “This stems from use of natural gas to produce steam that is injected underground to mobilize bitumen for extraction. Under 2014 projections, GHG emissions from in situ operations are set to rise by 300 per cent by 2030, in contrast to an 85 per cent rise in those from surface mining. Upgrading emissions are expected to remain stable. This makes in situ operations an important focus for efforts to reduce GHG emissions.”
Canada has been very slow, compared to other developed countries, including the United States and Europe, to tackle its greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those spewing from tarsands projects.
Opponents of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, which would transport millions of barrels of bitumen from Alberta through Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to the east coast for shipping, want greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands extraction to become part of the National Energy Board’s criteria for approval of the pipeline.
In early February, about 25 members of the Council of Canadians braved piercing cold to stand outside the offices of the National Energy Board in Calgary so they could present petitions they said had been signed by 100,000 people demanding that greenhouse gas emissions from the tarsands and their impact on climate change be among the that the NEB considers during hearings on Energy East.
Robert Steedman, chief environment officer for the NEB, told the protesters and news media that the NEB can’t deal with climate change at Energy East hearings because it is not in the board’s mandate.
The protesters should make their point with the federal government, he said, and convince it to change the mandate.
The oilsands industry, which will be producing the bitumen going into that Energy East pipeline, is Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions. In just five years, Environment Canada projects, Alberta will be responsible for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas pollution nationally, with much of this growth coming from oilsands expansion.
This upward trend is expected to continue until changes are made to the amount of emissions the province will allow, and to the price charged to emitters who exceed the limit.
The promotion of oilsands development has been a key factor in both the federal and Alberta governments’ reluctance to impose stricter regulations or a carbon tax on emissions.
In the words of Jim Prentice, who was premier of Alberta for six months before he and the Progressive Conservative party were thrashed by the NDP in the May election: “I promise to make Alberta an environmental leader but not at the cost of making the oil and gas industry less competitive by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.”
Prentice never explained how Alberta could become an environmental leader without a high price on carbon and stricter, costlier regulations.
The NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley has a different approach. Shortly after being elected, it doubled Alberta’s low, $15-a-tonne penalty for industrial emitters that do not reduce their emissions to established targets.
Notley also established an independent panel headed by University of Alberta business professor Andrew Leach to recommend climate change policies for the province before the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December. Notley is planning to attend that conference, a first for an Alberta premier.
The Alberta government’s traditional opposition to significantly curbing greenhouse gas emissions goes back to the days when the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 legally bound Canada to specific carbon emission reduction targets.
This global pact was reached only a few months after the federal and Alberta governments introduced significant tax and royalty breaks for the oilsands industry in hopes of kick-starting investment and development.
Steve West, Alberta’s energy minister at the time, was in Kyoto when the agreement was being negotiated. He was furious and urged the federal representatives not to sign.
When the Kyoto accord was finally ratified by the Canadian Parliament in 2002, then Alberta premier Ralph Klein called it “the goofiest, most devastating thing ever contemplated by a Canadian government.”
In 2007, Alberta became the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate greenhouse gas reductions on large industrial facilities. Any facility, including an oilsands project, that emits more than 100,000 tonnes of GHGs a year was required to reduce emissions intensity by 12 per cent.
Under this complicated legislation, Alberta gave companies three options for meeting the emissions reduction by March 31, 2008: Make improvements that will reduce GHG emissions immediately Buy carbon credits from other sectors that have reduced their emissions in the Alberta-based offset systemPay $15 for every tonne over their reduction target
But critics charged that the penalty was so minimal, it would not result in significant reductions.
Seven years later, Alberta’s auditor general revealed that the program had been so poorly monitored between 2008 and 2012 that Alberta Environment determined the program was not on track to reach its 2020 targets — even though the province had committed more than $1 billion to two carbon capture and storage projects that were expected to contribute total reductions of three megatonnes in 2020.
“This is amazing,” auditor general Merwan Saher told reporters on a conference call. “We’re in 2014 and there hasn’t yet been a public report on the success or otherwise of the 2008 (greenhouse gas) reduction strategy.”
And then there was the Liberal campaign platform of Stéphane Dion in the summer of 2008. It proposed levying a carbon tax and redistributing the revenue for environmental and social programs. Once again, Alberta and the oil and gas industry strenuously objected, claiming it would destroy Alberta’s economy, even though oil was selling for about $135 a barrel at the time.
Dion lost the election to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and since then the federal and Alberta governments had been on exactly the same page when it came to resisting tougher greenhouse gas regulations or carbon taxes.
But with an NDP government in Alberta, they are no longer on the same page.
Within two weeks of the NDP victory, the federal government announced new targets for carbon emissions reductions. Canada would reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 — an ambitious target given that Canada had already fallen behind its target of reducing emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
But there was no clear plan for oilsands emissions, even though they are the country’s fastest-growing source and will push Alberta’s production to 40 per cent of all GHG emissions in Canada by 2020. And even though the federal government took a sector-by-sector approach, no regulations specific to the oilsands industry were introduced.
Shortly after, Alberta Environment doubled Alberta’s carbon tax, and oilsands projects were definitely included.
There are signs that oil industry leaders now realize the writing is on the wall and they must yield to the pressure or risk becoming international pariahs.
Steve Williams, CEO of Suncor, the largest oilsands producer, is one of them.
In June, he told a group of Calgary business and environmental leaders that it was time to “stop talking and take action” by levying a significant tax on carbon that would be paid not just by industrial emitters but by consumers as well, the same model adopted by British Columbia.
“Climate change is happening. Doing nothing isn’t an option we should choose,” Williams added.
He also said Canada has a less than stellar reputation regarding its climate change policies, and that is bad for business.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the powerful lobby group that represents all the oilsands producers, is more cautious.
It claims the oilsands industry currently contributes about 9 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions and accounts for only 0.13 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
But that doesn’t address the projected increase in oilsands emissions.
CAPP argues that oilsands operators have reduced emissions by 12 per cent a barrel of oil produced over the past few years (total emissions will still continue to increase because bitumen production will increase). The group calls climate change “an important global issue,” but in its list of priorities for climate change policies, economic growth comes before environmental protection.
Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based NGO, is convinced that international oil companies such as Shell are already planning for a price on carbon.
“Other companies are not as tuned in to what is going on outside Alberta, so they are still using their CAPP speaking points,” he says. “But behind the scenes the conversation has shifted … People know they will have to do their fair share about climate change. It cannot be ignored any longer.
“If a timetable of increases in the tax is established, it makes it easier for companies to plan ahead,” he adds. “It will give them some certainty.
“We are certainly not doing ourselves any favours by waiting much longer to do this. The longer we wait the more it will cost us.
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