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Shifts in the Tar Sands

Shifts in the Tar Sands

25 August 2015

The Canadian province of Alberta is well-known for being the home of the country's current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and the infamous tar sands. The traditionally conservative province has been criticized for its contribution to climate change. Binnu Jeyakumar, Consulting Advisor at Pembina Institute, led a discussion on this topic at Ecologic Institute. The seminar focused on the current political change in Alberta and its implications for the province's involvement in the fight against climate change. The participants also explored knowledge exchange possibilities between Alberta and Germany.

Binnu Jeyakumar shortly introduced the Pembina Institute. The clean energy think tank started as an advocacy group and shifted to working with the industry in order to maximize its impacts and instigate change from within the system. This proved to be a sensible approach due to the political climate in Alberta and a more effective way to affect policy.

Changes in Alberta

The Canadian province of Alberta was ruled by a centre-right government for 80 years and, more specifically, by the Progressive Conservatives (PC) for 44 years. This all came to an end in May 2015, with a landslide victory of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Binnu Jeyakumar explained that this surprise victory was facilitated by discontent with the PC for several reasons, including layoffs due to low oil prices and a sluggish economy. This recent turn of events is a great opportunity for the NDP but also creates a lot of pressure for the new ruling party to prove itself. The NDP must remain in the good favors of unions, companies and progressive thinkers, three distinct groups with particular wants and needs.

Binnu Jeyakumar then provided a detailed overview of the current status quo regarding Alberta and climate change. As many people know, Canada is not on track to reach Copenhagen targets. While emission levels are currently slightly lower than in 2005 in Canada as a whole, they are increasing in Alberta. Still, all is not bleak in the oil province: the cities of Calgary and Edmonton are ahead of the rest of the province in terms of sustainability. The new Alberta premier has found an ally in the Ontario premier: both are progressive and wish to discuss climate change.

Regulations and institutions

In 2007 the PC introduced the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation (SGER), a form of hybrid carbon pricing, in the province. It requires a 12% reduction in emissions with a penalty of $15/tonne. The NDP has changed the SGER to a 20% reduction and $30/tonne (this will come into effect by 2017). There are currently discussions of an economy-wide carbon tax that would also affect consumers. At this point in the legislation, there are few to no incentives to deal with emissions; in some cases loopholes exist in which it is cheaper to pay to pollute.

Moreover, the Province of Alberta has established a Climate Change Advisory Panel which engages Albertans, Aboriginal communities, and technical stakeholders to participate in the dialogue on key issues related to climate change. The Panel will take the information provided by the different stakeholders and use it to form a new action plan on climate change for Alberta. The Government of Alberta's Climate Change Advisory Panel is chaired by Andrew Leach (University of Alberta) and also has representatives from Suncor, Enbridge, the research field and First Nations.


Binnu Jeyakumar's presentation of the Albertan status quo was followed by an exchange of ideas with the participants. R. Andreas Kraemer, founder and Director Emeritus of Ecologic Institute, highlighted that while it is important to address the extractive sectors in Alberta (currently responsible for around 45% the province’s emissions), it is essential to shape the rest of the economy for the future. Both lead to different choices of policy instruments. It is important to fight the bad, but also to build something new.

Binnu Jeyakumar mentioned that currently coal plants must be shut down around 50 years of age, but there is no incentive for renewables to replace them due to the price being set by oil and gas. Often oil producers also produce gas, and can therefore sell it for really cheap without affecting their profitability. Binnu Jeyakumar mentioned two ideas being suggested to solve this: the Renewable Portfolio Standard to promote renewables, and making coal factories shut down earlier.

R. Andreas Kraemer, Binnu Jeyakumar and other employees of Ecologic Institute then exchanged on whether Alberta could learn from Germany and vice versa. It was agreed that no country should present their strategy as a one-size-fits-all solution, but that knowledge exchange would still be extremely beneficial to both sides. Canada, oil sands, Alberta - The seminar was a stimulating and productive exchange on common opportunities and the way forward in light of a significant political shift.