Sweden takes Canada to task over tar sands pollution

Country probed how it will curb climbing CO2 emissions from oil and gas sector as tar sands crude pumping set to double

Canada tar sands_FlickrTheCooperative

Tar sands in Alberta (Flickr / The Cooperative)

By Alex Pashley

Sweden has quizzed Canada over the sincerity of its carbon cutting plans amid forecasts its greenhouse gas emissions will soar.

As countries ready climate pledges under a UN pact to be inked in December, the Scandinavian nation probed Canada’s strategy to rein in tar sands drilling, set to drive a 38% surge in released CO2 within 15 years.

“[C]rude oil production from oil sands is expected to double until 2030, resulting in significantly emission increases from oil sands extraction,” Swedish negotiators posed last month through a UN portal.

“Could Canada please elaborate on envisaged policies for reducing emissions from oil sands extraction?”, its question read, along with 32 others.

The only North American country not to post its climate pledge, Canada has two months to reply through the portal — an evolving platform for direct and veiled criticism at climate laggards as the critical Paris summit looms.

Australia came under fire on Monday by China, the US and EU for unambitious targets.

Missed targets

Canada is set to miss its vow to slash emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, the Climate Action Tracker Group estimates, which drove its 2011 exit from the Kyoto treaty. Canada’s emissions outnumber Sweden by fifteen times.

The Harper administration said in a government report in January it expected emissions of 815 million tonnes of CO2 in 2030, up from 590Mt in 1990. Emissions from the rising tar sands industry is set to grow four-fold between 2005 and 2030 to reach 137Mt a year, the report showed.

Extracting tar sands, and turning bitumen to crude oil, uses vast amounts of energy and water and three times the global warming potential of conventional crude production. That puts diverse boreal forests and wetlands at risk.

“The biggest barrier to Canada meeting targets are growth of emissions from oilsands,” Amin Asadollahi at the Pembina Institute told RTCC from Alberta. “Canada’s upward emissions trajectory is a big concern – there is no plan to bend the curve.”

The fast-growing tar sands sector now accounts for a quarter of Canadian GHG emissions (Flickr / Howl Arts Collective)

The fast-growing tar sands sector now accounts for a quarter of Canadian GHG emissions (Flickr / Howl Arts Collective)

Eight-year old promises from Ottawa to regulate the oil and gas sector hadn’t materialised, while a “very low” carbon tax placed on emitters by Alberta authorities had done little to lower emissions intensity, Asadollahi said. Tar sands emissions now make up a quarter of the Canadian total.

“Alberta should look westwards to British Columbia,” he added, where a CA$30 a tonne carbon tax covers 70 percent of the province’s economy.

By contrast, Alberta’s regulations apply a CA$15 tax on just 12% of emission intensity, an effective carbon price of $1.80. And that only covers half of its economy’s emissions.

Environmental integrity

Katherine Watts at Greenpeace International told RTCC: “it may be a simple matter of environmental integrity that raised the question for Sweden, who is generally one of the more ambitious EU members states.”

“As well as being a reason for Canada not acting on climate (Stephen Harper is another) tar sands are playing into US political dynamics around Keystone XL.”

Aside the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude from Alberta to Texas, Canada has another under review.

The 4,600km Energy East Pipeline pipeline would carry 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta as well as Saskatchewan to refineries in eastern Canada.

Last October the independent auditor general delivered a withering assessment of the country’s climate policies, suggesting its 2020 goal was unattainable.

“In our view the lack of a clear plan and an effective planning process is a particularly significant gap,” said the report.

The article has been amended to show carbon taxes applied to 70%, not 85% of British Columbia’s economy as stated, while the figure was 50% in the case of Alberta.

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