Canada’s Alberta wants to cap oil sands emissions

The Canadian province of Alberta, the heart and soul of the country’s oil sands industry, has introduced legislation to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by these operations at a level higher than the entire emissions of Quebec.

However, officials acknowledged the province has yet to find a way to enforce the 100-megatonne a year limit. In 2014, oil sands accounted for 66 megatonnes of emissions, 24% of Alberta's total, and 9% of the country’s total for that year.

Oil sands operations have been the target of relentless attacks as a number of studies have concluded they are more carbon-intensive than some of the lighter grades of oil found in the US.

The provincial government said industry representatives and environmental groups agreed to the limit. There was no restriction before.

"It is seen as a reasonable approach to allow growth within the oilsands but to enhance the market conditions and the drive towards taking the carbon out of the barrel," Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said in a news conference this week.

Oil sands operations have been the target of relentless attacks as a number of studies have concluded they are more carbon-intensive than some of the lighter grades of oil found in the Lower 48 US states.

Since 1990, the sector has spent more than $1 billion on technologies needed to produce oil with a lower environmental footprint, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The group noted greenhouse gas emissions are currently 30% lower per barrel than they were in 26 years ago.

In September, the province approved three new projects worth about $3 billion (Cdn$4bn) in potential investments, which involve the use of steam stimulation , the most common set of techniques for extracting heavy crude oil used in the province.

Those so-called in situ methods don’t need large tailings ponds, so they don’t create vast landscape disturbances as do open-pit mines. Because of that, they are often described as more environmentally friendly. That notion, however, has also been called into question recently.

The proposed emissions act has exemptions for co-generation of the electricity used at oil sands facilities. New plants that had their first business later than Dec 31, 2015 or were expanded after that date, will be subject to a separate 10 megatonne limit.