Finding a reason for hope after disappointing Total oilsands mine approval

Blog - Jan. 31, 2011 - By Marc Huot

As Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced last week that he will not seek re-election, I allowed myself to dream of an Alberta with a provincial government willing to take its duty to regulate the oilsands industry more seriously. Unfortunately, just as I was starting to feel optimistic for the first time in a long while, news broke that the provincial and federal government's Joint Review Panel had approved the Total Joslyn North Mine.

This approval highlights the fundamental issues with the oilsands regulatory system. First, the mine was approved despite having a flawed application that failed to accurately assess its environmental impacts. And second, it is simply irresponsible for the government to approve another large mine when it has already proven to be incapable of managing the impacts of the rapidly expanding oilsands industry.

These concerns were raised very clearly by the Royal Society of Canada only a month before this approval. The Royal Society report findings illustrated that the oilsands industry suffers from poor government oversight and that decisions are made with a lack of information, particularly on cumulative environmental effects.

The evidence that the provincial and federal governments need to take bold action to develop the oilsands responsibly has never been stronger.

Just last week, we saw the release of a report by the National Round Table on Energy and Environment, outlining the case for Canada to implement a made-in-Canada climate policy. The report notes that if Canada delays further in implementing greenhouse gas reductions, oilsands could be left at a competitive disadvantage if the U.S. implements a low-carbon fuel policy. To meet the standard proposed by California, oilsands suppliers would need to achieve a 20 per cent total reduction in carbon intensity in the next decade.

Smokestacks at oilsands operationMeanwhile, what Alberta calls its climate change plan will let emissions continue to rise for at least the next decade — presenting a major problem for Canada to meet its international commitments, according to the Royal Society report. Environment Canada's national inventory report reported greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands more than doubled between 1990 and 2008.

It's puzzling then why our provincial and federal governments would blindly approve another project that will result in 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution each year, equivalent to putting more than 270,000 cars on the road

We'd love to believe those folks who like to characterize oilsands emissions as unsubstantial, but sadly that simply isn't the case.

It's important to recognize that per barrel emissions from oilsands have decreased considerably due to technology advancements, but the problem lies in the fact that the forecasted increase in production (due to approvals of projects such as the Total Joslyn mine) will still cause greenhouse gas emissions to rise.

While this all may sound a little bleak, the good news is that the momentum for a solution is building, with several recent independent reports calling the provincial and federal governments out for their mismanagement of the oilsands. Heck, even energy industry CEOs are calling for a national carbon tax.

With that in mind, I'm going to go back to dreaming about a day when Alberta's leader meets environmental criticism head-on by taking action to appropriately regulate oilsands development. The unique circumstances in Alberta politics right now just might allow that to happen.

Marc Huot
Marc Huot

Marc Huot was a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute’s oilsands program until 2012.


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