The Canadian and Alberta governments are looking at ways to exempt many new tar sands/oil sands projects from review under revised federal environmental assessment rules that were supposed to restore public confidence in a broken regulatory system.
The two governments are “sending a clear signal that pipeline projects and oil sands mining developments that fit under Alberta’s 100-megatonne emissions cap would be viewed as consistent with Canada’s plan for hitting its climate change targets,” the Globe and Mail reports. “While no decisions have been finalized, the federal Liberals are eager to send reassuring signals to the Alberta-based oil and gas industry.”
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DeSmog Canada explains  the exemption would apply to in-situ tar sands/oil sands extraction, a method that is expected to double in daily output to 2.9 million barrels per day between 2016 and 2040. “In-situ development represents the future of the oilsands,” DeSmog states.
Caroline Thériault, press secretary to Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna, said the federal government is opening a dialogue on the list of projects that would require full review under the new Impact Assessment Act.
“Applying the approach in the consultation paper to in-situ oil sands facilities, we’ve laid out how such projects impact in areas of federal jurisdiction,” Thériault said in an email to The Energy Mix. “If the federal jurisdiction is solely based on climate, and there is a provincial cap on emissions that fits within the Pan-Canadian climate plan, then certain types of projects, including in situ oil sands projects, may not be included on the project list.”
She added that “projects not included on the project list are still subject to provincial assessments and relevant federal permitting requirements.”
“If it is indeed the case that the federal government is working alongside Alberta to consider exemptions for oil and gas and pipelines, it just turns the whole intention of the legislation on its head,” Climate Action Network-Canada Executive Director Catherine Abreu told the Globe. “The federal government admitted the public had lost confidence in the existing process and it needed to be overhauled. If that’s true, it needs to be overhauled for all projects, particularly those that are most controversial.”
“It’s just appalling,” agreed Oil Change International Senior Advisor Adam Scott, in an interview with DeSmog Canada. “There’s no other way to say it.”
DeSmog notes that in-situ production is less visibly destructive than tar sands/oil sands mining, but produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions per barrel. By 2030, the process is expected to yield 65 megatonnes of emissions per year, the equivalent of Canada’s entire passenger transportation sector.
University of Calgary law professor Sharon Mascher told DeSmog those impacts warrant federal review.
“I would argue that the federal government has the constitutional power to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, and they need to show some leadership if they’re going to purport to be acting in a way that’s consistent with their obligations under the Paris agreement,” she said. “They need to exercise that jurisdiction to make sure that over the long term Canada’s greenhouse gases are not increasing, but are decreasing and eventually reaching carbon neutrality.”
As for Alberta’s much-touted emissions cap, self-described National Observer “resident chart geek” Barry Saxifrage calculated  last month that the so-called “hard cap” includes loopholes the size of the province of Nova Scotia, totalling 16 megatonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalent by 2030.
“A close look at this ‘cap’ reveals it has loopholes you could fit all of Nova Scotia’s emissions through, or even entire nations like Costa Rica or Nicaragua,” he wrote. “There are six loopholes, five of which have no maximum limit. When it comes to oilsands climate pollution, everything is supersized it seems, even the loopholes.”
Based on an Environment and Climate Change Canada breakdown, he noted that exemptions to the cap include climate emissions from electricity cogeneration, primary oil production, upgraders, enhanced recovery, experimental processes, and any emissions that take place in Saskatchewan.
“The cap allows oilsands pollution to rise to nearly a quarter of our nation’s climate target by 2030. And the oilsands’ share rises quickly from there, hitting 78% by 2050,” Saxifrage writes. “All while staying under the ‘cap.’”
In a letter to McKenna published by the Observer, and republished  verbatim on The Mix, Vancouver author Claudia Casper asked for an explanation of the federal government’s plan to get emissions under control, adding that she would have no choice but to join anti-pipeline protests on Burnaby Mountain until she had an answer.
“It is my understanding that if Alberta takes all the Fort McMurray bitumen out of the ground, we will use 16 to 17% of the world’s entire carbon budget, a budget based on capping the rise of global average temperature to below [2.0°C] by the year 2030,” she wrote. “Surely this cannot be our plan as a nation. Can you tell me what our plan is going forward?”
In her email response to The Mix, Thériault listed the headline items in the Pan-Canadian climate framework, including carbon pricing, a national clean fuel standard, clean cars, a national coal phaseout, methane emission controls, a $20-billion investment in green infrastructure, and other low-carbon funding tools as elements of the plan to “meet or beat our Paris climate targets”. The government admits those measures will fall 66 megatonnes short of the country’s 2030 target, and recent analysis by the Pembina Institute and San Francisco-based Energy Innovation puts  the gap at 161 Mt.