Crude oil production from the tar sands of Canada’s Alberta province are estimated to cause three times the amount of emissions than conventional oil production and was recently described as ‘Canada’s dirty secret’ by environmental activists at the United Nations climate change meeting in Poznan, Poland.

Alberta’s Premier, Ed Stelmach has faced a barrage of criticism over his province’s environmental record.  Managing the public image of Alberta’s oil industry has become a full-time job for Stelmach who has had to deal with mounting public pressure calling for reductions in the pace of development of Alberta’s oil resources.  Emissions from Alberta represent about a third Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (despite having only 12% of its population).  Adding to the public relations challenge for Alberta’s oil patch, a private lawsuit, supported by the Sierra Club of Canada and Forest Ethics, has recently been launched against the Syncrude oil company who’s open air toxic tailing ponds in Northern Alberta resulted in the deaths of 500 birds in the spring of 2008.

With President-elect Obama promising aggressive actions during his administration to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions, the question being raised north of the border in Canada is: how will Alberta’s tar sands industry be affected?

Obama has indicated that he wants to move America away from ‘dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive’ oil, a  move that could possibly influence US investment in Alberta’s oil industry. US mayors have signed a statement questioning the carbon footprint of the tar sands oil production which is expected to expand from 1.3 million barrels a day to 3.5 million over the next decade.  Canada is the largest supplier of oil and gas to the United States.  Fearing a withdrawal of US investment Alberta’s Premier has been making numerous trips to the United States touting Alberta’s “affordable energy” during this period of economic downturn.  In order to protect the industry, Premier Stelmach has asked fellow Conservative, Prime Minister Steven Harper for a seat at any future North American climate change negotiations. 

Meanwhile, the Province of Alberta has set greenhouse gas emissions targets based on intensity of production which will allow overall emissions to continue to rise until 2020.  These targets have drawn harsh criticism from environmental groups for not being in line with climate science which suggests that stronger, absolute emissions reductions are required globally over that time period in order to avoid dangerous climate change impacts.  Alberta’s long term targets for greenhouse gases are 14% reductions from 2005 levels by 2050.  Companies can avoid the intensity-targets by buying credits from other firms or paying $15/tonne into a technology fund, presumably to be used towards investments in the research and development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

Federal politicians in Canada also appear to be in no hurry to dramatically slow down the pace of development in Alberta’s tar sands – a pace of development so rapid that it calls into question Canada’s ability to reach the proposed emissions targets of Prime Minister Steven Harper’s government (20% cuts by 2020, based on 2006 emissions) which also include intensity-based targets for the oil industry.  The new Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice has made it clear that the government will not harm the weakening Canadian economy in order to pursue environmental progress.  The government believes that the environment and economy are polar opposites (not surprising as Mr. Prentice was formerly the minister for industry).

So for the time being it’s business as usual in Canada – but with a minority government that barely survived the fall session of parliament, a new leader of the opposition, and a confidence vote on the budget later in January, political forces are at play which will shape Canada’s climate change and energy policy in 2009.

To see a slide show of Alberta’s oil sands published by the Washington Post in June 2005 click here.

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