Intensity-based targets for the oil sands are inadequate

There has been a bit of talk in the media about adopting federal intensity-based greenhouse gas pollution standards for the oil sands:

“The federal government is using Alberta’s greenhouse-gas emissions target – criticized as too accommodating to industry – as the launching point for a national oil and gas carbon policy, even as the province itself looks to toughen those standards.

Alberta today requires large energy companies to achieve a 12-per-cent reduction in emissions, on a per-barrel ‘intensity’ basis that allows overall emissions to still climb dramatically.

That 12-per-cent standard “is part of the conversation, for sure” as the federal government seeks to write its rules, Environment Minister Peter Kent said in an interview Friday.”

The idea is to drive firms to reduce how much greenhouse gas pollution they produce in the course of producing each barrel of synthetic crude oil – not to restrict how much pollution they produce in total. Under an intensity-based plan, total emissions can continue to grow, particularly given how our measuring system ignores the biggest source of pollution associated with the oil sands.

Intensity-based targets ignore the main source of pollution associated with the oil sands: the actual barrels of synthetic crude that the oil sands industry exists to produce. Inescapably, when those barrels are burned, the carbon they contain will be added to the already-dangerously-large stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We need a plan to wind down the oil sands as a whole as part of a fair global transition to a carbon neutral economy. We certainly don’t need a regulatory regime that permits continued growth in oil sands output.

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