Memo to Bill McKibben: Hands off the Alberta oil sands, bub!

oil sands

Bill McKibben, in blue shirt and tie, at a Keystone XL protest rally. Photo: Wikipedia.

Alberta, oil sands, PM Trudeau don’t deserve harsh words from self-righteous, misguided eco-activist

As Ivanka Trump and her Big Oil allies try to persuade her daddy not to leave the Paris Climate Accord, Canada is grappling with how to meet its own aggressive emission-reduction targets. No surprise, environmental critics think the Alberta oil sands are the low hanging fruit and they want production to be reduced or ended – despite NDP policies designed to reduce carbon intensity to that of conventional oil.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left), American President Donald Trump. Photo: CBC.

American eco-activist Bill McKibben ws down right rude in a Guardian op-ed entitled, Stop swooning over Justin Trudeau. The man is a disaster for the planet. He called the Prime Minister “a brother to the old orange guy in Washington,” meaning Donald Trump, of course.

“[Trudeau’s] words are meaningless if you keep digging up more carbon and selling it to people to burn, and that’s exactly what Trudeau is doing,” McKibben wrote in a

“He’s hard at work pushing for new pipelines through Canada and the US to carry yet more oil out of Alberta’s tar sands, which is one of the greatest climate disasters on the planet.”

McKibben has plenty of Canadian company.

A new study from the Parkland Institute, Extracted Carbon: Re-examining Canada’s Contribution to Climate Change through Fossil Fuel Exports, finds that extracted carbon from (fossil fuels extracted and used domestically or exported and combusted elsewhere) increased 26 per cent from 2000 to 2014, while in 2015 Canada’s extracted carbon equalled almost 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

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Suncor MacKay River SAGD well head in the oil sands.

“If all producer countries act like Canada by continuing to expand the extraction and export of fossil fuels, we can give up on a limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2°C as envisioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change,” said CCPA-BC senior economist Marc Lee, author of the report, in a press release.

“If we look at what we dig not just what we burn domestically, there has been a relentless rise in carbon emissions from Canada.”

The real burr under Lee’s saddle is what he calls a “major loophole in the Paris Agreement” – fossil fuels exported to other countries are not counted in Canada’s emissions inventory.

“This ‘green paradox’ is bad news for the climate,” said Lee. “The Paris Agreement is a ‘good deal’ for Canada because only half of the fossil fuels we extract get counted in our greenhouse gas inventory.”

Let’s face it, the oil sands are a big target, contributing 9.3 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2014.

But why is the first impulse to shut down the oil sands or severely curtail output?

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Dinara Millington, CERI.

Last week I wrote about a study from the Canadian Energy Research Institute that examined the impact of the Alberta government’s climate policies – particularly the 100 megatonne emissions cap – on oil sands GHG emissions.  

“Industry will come to the metrics where we see oil sands bitumen has the same – or even lower – intensity than a conventional barrel of oil. I think industry is moving towards that and I think that’s what drives the innovation from companies, industry organizations, and federal and provincial governments,” said Dinara Millington, VP of research, in an interview.

Millington and her co-authors outline six “technology configurations.” Implementing any one of them would reduce chances to nil of reaching the 100 MtCO2eq./year cap within the study period  of 2016 to 2036.

Back in Jan., I interviewed University of Calgary energy economist Kent Fellows about his team’s study on the effects of partial upgrading on oil sands bitumen. One of the conclusions is that the process is 17 per cent less emissions-intensive than “alternative bitumen-processing technologies.”

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Dr. Kent Fellows, economist, School of Public Policy, Univ. of Calgary.

Partial upgrading is a sure bet to be included in recommendations from the Alberta Energy Diversification Advisory Committee when it reports in very near future, mostly because the the process can save producers $10 to $15 per barrel, thereby improving the Notley government’s tax revenue. 

And then there is the Canadian government’s mid-century GHG-reduction strategy, released late last year by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

The strategy notes that “the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 38% of the required global emissions reductions associated with a 2°C pathway could be met through energy efficiency improvements.” Not coincidentally, Alberta launched its Energy Efficiency Agency around the same time and recently hired industry veteran Monica Curtis to devise and implement the provincial plan.

Also of interest is the reduction of fugitive methane emissions, especially from energy production and distribution, like natural gas pipelines. Again, Alberta is leading the way with a commitment to lower methane leaks by 40 per cent.

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Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips

And let’s not forget Alberta’s economy-wide carbon tax and “output-based allocations” that reward energy producers lowering emissions and penalize dirty ones.

And there are still another eight or 10 strategies in the federal plan that will have important but less direct impacts on Alberta emissions.

Sorry, Bill McKibben, I don’t see a “climate disaster.”

What I see is the most aggressive climate mitigation strategy in North America, with the possible exception of California, where Gov. Jerry Brown is making big gambles on electric vehicles and cutting edge energy storage technologies.

Maybe it’s time the professional eco-activist stuffed a sock in his yap when it comes to the oil sands and associated pipelines.

At the very least, he could show a little love for a province that is taking exactly the kind of action he preaches about in the United States.

His first step might be a little research to find out what is actually going on in Alberta.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

1 Comment on "Memo to Bill McKibben: Hands off the Alberta oil sands, bub!"

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  1. John Johansen says:

    I write as both an ardent supporter of the Notley government and someone who believes in climate change.

    I wonder why Canadian ecosctivists who are unremittingly hostile to Alberta’s government are not also calling for an end to the building and assembly of fossil-fuel vehicles in Canada. They want an immediate end to fossil-fuel privation but surely it would also make sense to stop proving vehicles that burn such fuels.

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