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Paris Agreement could allow more tar sands expansion, export pipelines

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Tar sands corporations appear unfazed by the Trudeau government's support of the 1.5-degree target in the Paris Agreement.

The Globe and Mail reports, "There is no indication yet that the deal agreed to by 195 counties, including Canada, in Paris on Saturday will add new wrinkles to Alberta's plan...." The tar sands currently emits 70 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Under Alberta's 'climate leadership' plan, that would be allowed to rise to a cap of 100 megatonnes a year. That represents a 43 per cent increase in the carbon emissions from the tar sands. Beyond the cap, the Alberta plan allows for another 10 megatonnes of emissions a year for new upgrading and cogeneration facilities.

So how can a 1.5-degree target allow for a significant increase in tar sands emissions and the plan to almost double current production from 2.3 million barrels a day to 4 million barrels a day by 2024? The Globe and Mail suggests, "The big winners are likely to be companies that are developing green energy and technology to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. ...Energy-sector leaders that support the [Alberta and Paris] proposals say the cap provides incentives to develop technology to cut emissions. ...Cenovus Energy Inc. [which extracts about 144,000 barrels per day out of the tar sands] welcomed the global solidarity on the issue."

Technology has its limits though. A University College London study released earlier this year found that for Canada to do its fair share to meet a 2 degrees Celsius target it would have to leave 85 per cent of the tar sands in the ground. The Globe and Mail reported at that time, "The figure assumes that new technologies will make possible a reduction in the carbon intensity of oil sands production. If this does not happen, the authors say, then even less of the oil-sands reserve should be extracted." The study also found that carbon capture and storage technologies would not significantly change this reality.

Beyond the approach of the technological fix, corporations may also use their own "fair share" argument. Today's Globe and Mail article notes, "The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers [says] Canada must play a role, even if its emissions make up 1.6 per cent of the global total... Chelsie Klassen, the group's spokeswoman [also says] 'Canadians can count on us to do our part through technology and innovation in Canada.'" That said, the United States Energy Information Administration lists 85 countries whose combined annual emissions amount to 103 megatonnes, less than what Alberta alone would produce under its production and upgrading cap in 2020. And according to the World Resources Institute, Canada is the ninth biggest carbon emitter in the world and the biggest carbon emitter on a per capita basis.

And another article in today's Globe and Mail reports, "Environment Minister Catherine McKenna acknowledged the effort that will be required from the Liberal government -- and the country -- to achieve the 2-degree target, let alone the lower figure Ottawa endorsed in Paris. 'We've spent a lot of time focusing on getting an ambitious agreement here in Paris and then we're going to go home and figure out the plan', she said at the close of the summit. 'But what is very clear is that we are going to put a price on carbon, [and] that we know that we need to move to a low-carbon economy. And we're going to figure out the tools to do that in conjunction with the provinces and territories and also the aboriginal leaders.'"

Here we see no indication that the expansion of the tar sands might be limited, nor any suggestion that there would be an impact on tar sands export pipelines like TransCanada's 1.1-million barrels per day Energy East pipeline and Kinder Morgan's 890,000-barrels per day Trans Mountain pipeline.

Surprisingly, that article adds, "On Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, suggested it is an open question as to whether Ottawa will seek a more ambitious target with the provinces [than than the one the Harper government set]. 'Ms. McKenna said it was the floor. So we'll see if we may improve it', he said. 'But I would argue though that because of the inertia of the federal government over the last 10 years, the target we have tabled in Paris is not easy to meet, contrary to common wisdom. It is quite difficult, but doable.'"

The Harper government had promised a 30 per cent reduction of carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, which translates (when using the standard baseline of 1990) to 14 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. In comparison, the European Union has pledged a 40 per cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.

The Trudeau government seems intent on keeping its election-time promise to meet with provincial governments at a summit within 90 days of the conclusion of the Paris talks. That should mean that the meeting will happen by March 12. While the presumption may be that this will produce a new ambitious plan, the Globe and Mail cautions, "So far, the provincial climate plans leave Canada falling well short of [even the low] international commitment made by the former Harper government. More action will be required to meet the Conservatives' 2030 target, a goal that was widely criticized as one of the weakest among industrialized countries."

In terms of other upcoming dates, the Trudeau government is expected to render its decision on whether the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day) can proceed by May 20, 2016. A decision on the Energy East pipeline could conceivably come by April 2017. This coming May 7-15, 2016, there will be a global mobilization to shut down the world's most dangerous fossil fuel projects, including those in Canada. DeSmog Canada reports, "The Break Free From Fossil Fuels campaign will involve acts of civil disobedience including forming human chains to block oil exports, interfering with coal mine operations and marching on the corporate headquarters of fossil fuel companies."

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