STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Greenhouse gas policies –We’re special. We’re Alberta

Posted by mhudema on February 6, 2008

Barbara Yaffe
Vancouver Sun
Development of Alberta’s oilsands, portrayed until now as a good news story for Canada, is coming to be seen as a dirty business.

Canadians have been grateful for U.S. interest in the sands and happy for the cash that has been enriching the Prairie province thanks to big-ticket oil.

But is it worth it? Increasingly there is a focus on the heavy environmentalist price being paid for the black stuff north of Edmonton.

And what of the burden Alberta is placing on the rest of the country in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? With less than 10 per cent of Canada’s population, Alberta spews nearly one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions.

Which makes it astounding that last week Premier Ed Stelmach up and quit a premier’s conference in Vancouver aimed at comparing notes on greenhouse gas emissions.

He departed after the first day, advertising an unfortunate lack of concern.

Four of the premiers who stuck around pledged to explore development of a market-based trading scheme to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

B.C., Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario will be holding further talks on a national cap-and-trade system that would allow polluters to buy and sell credits according to their ability to meet emission reduction targets.

Typically, Quebec’s premier wants the headquarters to be in Montreal. Arguably, it should be in Edmonton. Alberta’s oilsands have made that province by far the biggest polluter coast to coast.

The northern Alberta deposits have become an elephant in the living room.

Together, oilsands in Canada and Venezuela — in its Orinoco reserves –are equivalent to the world’s total reserves of convention crude.

Canada ships a million barrels of crude oil and refined products a day to the U.S., all deriving from three northern Alberta deposits: Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River.

Together, this area covers the size of England.

Only the Athabasca oilsands are suitable for surface mining, and much of the environmental focus has been on this unsightly enterprise.

Terrain around the Athabasca River, largely covered by boreal forest, gradually is being transformed into an inhospitable moonscape with hideous sulphur ponds and mine tailings.

And it takes a great whack of energy — by way of natural gas — to produce oil from the sands. The process also uses an enormous amount of water.

A lot of jaw flapping about rehabilitating land destroyed through the mining, powering the process through cleaner nuclear energy, carbon capture and its underground storage, to date haven’t yield any significant action.

A provincial green plan announced last week that will delay any provincial reduction in emissions until 2050 was panned by climate change activists.

The Alberta-based Pembina Institute called it “shockingly irresponsible.”

Director Marlo Raynolds declared: “The government of Alberta is choosing to entrench itself as an irresponsible laggard in Canada.”

While Alberta goes brown, B.C. is becoming Canada’s greenest province.

“B.C. is currently the leading province when it comes to setting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets and showing conviction about meeting them,” Pembina’s climate change spokesman Matthew Bramley said in an interview.

The polarized approaches to emission reductions are likely over time to create tension among provinces as Canada tries to meet targets set out by international climate change treaties.

Is it fair for Alberta to be the overwhelming economic beneficiary of the oilsands while the country as a whole undertakes the burden of reducing national emission levels?

Some argue that Ottawa should be taking more of a lead in coordinating provincial efforts on the climate-change file. Business in particular wants a standardized approach.

But such a prospect is dicey given that provinces, constitutionally, have full control over their resources and the current prime minister is bound and determined to respect provincial rights.

Moreover, Stephen Harper is from Alberta. It’s his political base. It would not be in his electoral interest to force Alberta into the cap-and-trade system being contemplated by the four premiers.

Yet, in years to come, the federal government most assuredly will be committing Canada to ever-more restrictive emissions targets in a post-Kyoto treaty. Something has to give.

Barbara Yaffe is a Vancouver Sun columnist. E-mail:

© The Windsor Star 2008

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