Climate politics and carbon proprioception in Alberta: after the peace, a phony war?

It’s allegedly war, allegedly again, in the Alberta climate change policymaking debate. The (alleged) belligerents: the NDP government and oil industry on one side, the environmental lobby on the other. A recent article has the provincial NDP government and oil industry at odds with Canadian environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), following a nearly four-year truce during which the ENGOs toned down their anti oilsands rhetoric in return for a seat at the policymaking table.

The basis for the truce was an agreement that the oil industry would self-impose a 100 million ton annual cap on industry CO2 emissions. The cap was proposed by the industry, as a peace offering, to quell the escalating international opposition to the oilsands that was making the industry—and government—worry about another Keystone-style campaign to kill their foreign markets. The allegedly recently revealed price for this peace offering is what allegedly drove the ENGOs back to the matresses. It was: no limit on oilsands production.

The ENGOs claim this was sprung on them after they had agreed in good faith to try to work with industry and the government to find a way to reduce Alberta’s gargantuan in-province CO2 emissions. These—or at least those that Alberta officially takes responsibility for—amount to around 250 million tons annually—35 percent of Canada’s national CO2 inventory, from a province with 14 percent of the population.1

The problem with this version of events is that it is, or ought to be, obvious that for a cap on oilsands CO2 emissions to be credible, it would have to mean a cap on production. Every drop of the product of this industry winds up in the atmosphere as CO2 or in landfills and the oceans as plastic. ENGOs know this, or ought to know it—after all, this is at least part of the reason why they allegedly oppose the oilsands in the first place.

The smaller side of the oilsands CO2 equation is (allegedly) the real reason ENGOs hate bitumen. That smaller side is the upstream emissions: the emissions involved in separating bitumen out of sand and turning it into a liquid that can flow through a pipe. Oilsands producers made 876 million barrels of such liquids in 2016 (according to NRCan). At their points of use, these were turned into around 264 million tons of CO2 and some amount (I won’t try to calculate how much) of plastic. The CO2 is now swirling around in the global atmosphere, and will continue doing so for thousands of years until it absorbs into ocean water or rock.

In the course of making those 876 million barrels of liquids, oilsands producers dumped close to 90 million tons of CO2 into the air.

Any cap on oil industry CO2 comes with really easy-to-read fine print: that cap is on CO2 entering the atmosphere from Alberta. CO2 that is produced from Alberta crude–derived gasoline from the gas tank of a car in China, say, or South Korea—that CO2 is exempt.

Those latter 90 million tons of CO2 are actually what is at issue in Canada’s national climate change debate. They came almost entirely from burning and reforming natural gas: burning it to make steam so as to separate the tar from the sand, and reforming it (rather, its main constituent methane, CH4) so as to extract hydrogen to put into the heavy complex hydrocarbon molecules that make up bitumen in order to get it to flow through a pipe. Somehow burning and reforming natural gas for oilsands production is unacceptable to allegedly anti-oilsands ENGOs. They appear to have no problem with the same carbon-heavy fuel being burned (not reformed) in Alberta’s second most CO2-intensive sector, electric power generation, which currently dumps close to 60 million tons of CO2 into the air every year.

In fact, far from having a problem with natural gas becoming the dominant fuel in Alberta power generation, ENGOs actually support it.

Why do I say this? Because across the board all Canadian ENGOs opposed the 2007–2011 effort of Bruce Power, the Ontario nuclear utility, to bring nuclear power to Alberta.

They (actually, all ENGOs in the world) oppose any company’s effort to bring nuclear power anywhere at any time. But Alberta is the instance that most starkly illustrates the nature of what these organizations really bring to the global climate change debate. Alberta power generation has a 7,000 megawatt combustible baseload (see the figure below). Much of that is currently supplied with coal, the most carbon-heavy fuel other than biomass. ENGOs want coal replaced with gas, which while less CO2 intensive than coal still throws enormous amounts of CO2 into the air. They make a big deal out of opposing the burning of natural gas when it comes to turning bitumen into a liquid, yet support the burning of the very same natural gas in power generation. First they suck, then they blow.

That is also why I suggest this recent alleged break between the ENGOs on one side and the Alberta government and oil industry on the other is a phony one. How much carbon proprioception does it take to understand that any self-imposed cap on oilsands CO2 emissions is simply a public relations ploy? Alberta (and Canada) cannot continue to make money off the oilsands while stopping oilsands CO2 from entering the atmosphere. That is impossible. The product is manufactured and sold in order to be burned. So any cap on industry CO2 comes with really easy-to-read fine print: that cap is on CO2 entering the atmosphere from Alberta. CO2 that is produced from Alberta crude–derived gasoline from the gas tank of a car in China, say, or South Korea—that CO2 is exempt.

Does Mother Nature know or care about the Alberta loophole that underpins this public relations ploy? Of course she doesn’t. CO2 is CO2. When a gas molecule of CO2 anywhere in the atmosphere encounters an infrared photon of a certain wavelength, it absorbs the photon then emits it, often in a different direction from which it was absorbed. That is the basis of anthropogenic global warming. It’s just physics. It happens whether or not Canada sets up CO2 tax shelters outside of Canada.

It should have taken about a nanosecond for the points in the foregoing two paragraphs to be processed by ENGO representatives when they were invited to the Alberta policymaking table. Yet they would have us believe they were gobsmacked when they discovered industry has no intention, and never did have any intention, of scaling back production, and that they are now back at war.

What nonsense. The industry makes money selling oil. The ENGOs know today, as they knew when they decided to publicly play nice with the oil industry, that it’s business as usual in Alberta oilsands. They played along.

  1. Yes, Alberta, with 14 percent of the population, also contributes an outsize proportion to Canada’s equalization payments. That’s why the federal government is turning itself into a pretzel over Alberta CO2 emissions.
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5 years ago

This is more evidence that the “environmental” NGOs are controlled opposition.  Forcing them to publish the names of their funders and “advisors” and the content of that advice would no doubt prove them to be total hypocrites.

Jim Baerg
5 years ago

Do you see a way to interpret this:
in a way that would make nuclear an acceptable option?

A look at this:
suggests that about 8 GW of nuclear could be used in Alberta, with another 1 or 2 GW of more variable capacity like hydro or natural gas needed to cover swings in demand. Note: The rapids on the Slave River between lakes Athabasca & Great Slave, would provide about 1 GW of steady power or a few times that for peak power.

[…] dump into the global atmosphere. This is the scenario the feds are gunning to make happen (see my previous article). For the feds, this is what has to happen for Alberta voters to be made […]