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Memo to Obama: Canada's carbon problem IS the tar sands

September 10, 2013

2-minute read

Canada's Harper-ment is getting increasingly desperate. The quest to double production out of the Alberta tar sands needs new pipelines (or rail). In recent months, we have seen new proposals for pipelines to the west and to the east, amid further delays of the KeystoneXL pipeline to the south. The success of US activists (environmentalists, but also first nations, farmers and ranchers) in delaying a decision on KeystoneXL is significant: this project was viewed as a slam dunk a few years ago; now there is a very good likelihood of it being denied. To sway the decision, the PM has stated to President Obama that Canada is willing to commit to "joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector." No official White House response has been made, although the two had a talk about this on Friday at the G-20 meetings.

President Obama, don't believe the PM. Canada has a long history of committing to greenhouse gas reduction targets, then reneging. This is just what it seems to be: a ploy to stoke a yes on Keystone that will get more of that bitumen moving out of the ground in Alberta and into the atmosphere. But even if Canada was to make a sincere commitment on climate action, there is little doubt that KeystoneXL fails Obama's "carbon test," as stated in June:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest.  And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.
Somehow this particular choice of words has been read as a President still sitting on the fence. And I'm sure the oil industry is investing big bucks to develop the creative accounting needed to pass this test. But the fact of the matter is that the Alberta tar sands is the most GHG-intensive industrial area in Canada, and the country's greatest barrier to a low or zero carbon future. The proved reserves of the tar sands, if put into the atmosphere, represent 73 billion tonnes of CO2, an amount equivalent to 2.5 years of global CO2 emissions. Adding in probable reserves nearly doubles this total.

These vast reserves are fundamentally in conflict with any reasonable share for Canada of a global carbon budget (the amount of fossil fuel the world can "safely" combust). Canada's share of a global carbon budget would be no more than 20 billion tonnes, and likely much less than that. But even with the larger number, 80-90% of our total fossil fuel reserves, and three-quarters of tar sands reserves, would need to stay in the ground. Because tar sands oil is among the most costly and GHG-intensive sources to get to market, any global regime on constraining carbon would have the tar sands firmly in its sight.

For all the industry talk of new technological advances like carbon capture and storage, these potential emissions from the tar sands are already safely below the ground. So let's keep them there. One important loophole in all of this is that most of the emissions associated with the tar sands will be counted in the GHG inventories of other nations, not Canada; that is, they get counted where they are combusted. Pipelines that load tankers headed to Asia and the resulting emissions would presumably not count in any math PM Harper would agree to.

Fossil fuel industries in total (including coal and natural gas production) employ only 0.9% of Canadians, while undermining our opportunity to move towards a sustainable future. Instead of billions invested in continued expansion of the tar sands, let's start taxing carbon nationally, increasing royalties for carbon extractors, and eliminating public subsidies to the industry. That would provide the much-needed capital for a multi-decade plan aimed at rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and painting it green, in the process creating tens of thousands of jobs across Canada.

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