Alberta's New Climate Plan Seen as a Meaningful First Step

Tar sands' carbon emissions will continue to rise, but the province's new government signals a change in direction.

Shell's Jackpine oil sands mine/Credit: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute

The newly elected government in the Canadian province of Alberta announced what it called "important first steps" to rein in the province's growing emissions of greenhouse gases. It vowed to tighten its existing regulations, raise its carbon price modestly, and promised new rules governing the oil and gas sector.

But it appears that the new approach, like the old one that was about to expire, would allow carbon dioxide emissions from Alberta's gigantic tar sands operations to keep rising, at least for the time being.

Tar sands emissions are the main reason for Canada's failure to achieve its past promises to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists have said that tar sands are so dirty that almost all reserves ought to be left in the ground if the world is going to stay within a carbon budget keeping global warming within relatively safe limits.

Once Alberta's new rules are phased in, tar sands oil producers (and other large industrial polluters) would have to cut their per-barrel emissions of carbon dioxide by 20 percent or pay a fine of $30 on each ton of excess carbon dioxide.

Previously, the emissions goal was 12 percent and the fee was $15. Companies that do better than their target can earn credits and sell them to others.

This kind of formula is not as strict as a true carbon tax like British Columbia's, which imposes a $30 levy on every ton of pollution, nor as rigorous as a cap-and-trade approach which sets an absolute limit on the amount of pollution and lowers it over time.

Instead, companies that don't meet the target for emissions intensity end up paying relatively moderate fines, or buying emissions credits from high performers, if that is cheaper.

The industry recently predicted that production of tar sands oil would keep rising, although low oil prices may crimp investments in new projects and slow the growth. If the number of barrels produced goes up faster than per-barrel emissions go down, the net effect would be more and more pollution over the years, not less.

Alberta's emissions are significantly higher than they were in 2005, and last December, Canada's federal government predicted that they would continue to go up sharply in the coming decades. The new rules would dampen that rise, but probably not reverse it.

Even so, environmental critics of the tar sands industry said Alberta's new approach is not ambitious enough, but is aimed in the right direction.

"The Alberta government's commitments to set a higher price and target for carbon pollution following a set schedule, and to take further action following broad-based consultation, are both encouraging," said Ed Whittingham of the Pembina Institute in Canada. "Of course, it will take more than the changes announced today for Alberta to credibly do its part to tackle climate change."

"This is a good first step," said Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But given Alberta's track record, the province has a long way to go to helping Canada meet its international climate commitment. First and foremost, Alberta should rein in tar sands development, and its carbon-intensive emissions, in order for Canada to demonstrate it is serious about fighting climate change."

"This is the signal that business and investors in Alberta have been needing," said Dirk Forrister of the International Emissions Trading Association.

Alberta's next steps, officials said, would come after a few months of consultations led by Andrew Leach, a university professor specializing in energy economics.

He called the province's tightening "a meaningful increase in stringency."

The government said its new rules would be expanded in time for Canada to present them to international negotiators before the climate talks in Paris in December.

"For years, the previous government failed to develop a meaningful strategy to deal with the important issue of climate change and we are going to do things differently," said Shannon Phillips, Alberta's environment minister. She took office after the New Democratic Party was elected in May, stunning Conservatives who had held power in the province for 44 years. The shift came as plunging oil prices sent economic shock waves through the province, which relies heavily on revenues from the tar sands.

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