Growing pollution from the oil sands

Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute does a good job of explaining one major reason why the oil sands are of special concern, when it comes to the various sources of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada:

No one could make the case about why the oilsands matter better than Environment Canada just did. In late July, the department published a document called Canada’s Emissions Trends, which provides an up-to-date projection of greenhouse gas pollution under a “business as usual” scenario — in other words, our emissions future unless governments take stronger actions than they have to date.

This document provides really important data, so we were very glad to see it made public. But the picture it paints of where oilsands emissions are heading is — to put it mildly — not pretty.

Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands have grown by over 150 per cent. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada’s number show, they’re going to keep right on growing, tripling from 30 million tonnes in 2005 to 92 million tonnes in 2020. That represents 12 per cent of Canada’s projected national emissions in 2020, more than the total for any province except Alberta and Ontario.

That makes the oilsands sector very unique. In other parts of Canada’s economy, emissions are expected to grow much more slowly, or even to drop as technologies improve or federal or provincial emission reduction policies take effect. Most notably, electricity emissions are expected to fall by 31 million tonnes in Canada by 2020 in the absence of new government policies — while oilsands expansion is forecast to increase emissions by twice that much over the same period. (It’s worth noting that the federal government has already outlined a regulatory approach to coal-fired electricity detailed enough that it’s been included in Environment Canada’s “business as usual” projections, while the projections don’t include an equivalent federal policy approach for the oilsands.)

While other sectors of the Canadian economy can learn how to operate in ways that damage the climate much less, output from the oil sands will always significantly raise global pollution levels.

The world as a whole needs to go on a carbon diet, and Canada along with it. Plans to have output from the oil sands keep growing without end are at odds with that necessary aim.

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