We’re not so dirty

Forget the oil sands. Coal, both here and in the U.S., is the real foe.

We’re not so dirtyNational Geographic has some nerve. In a 24-page spread this month entitled “Scraping Bottom,” the magazine, known for its lavish photographic spreads, makes perverse Playboy centrefolds of Alberta’s oil sands developments, comparing them to “dark satanic mills.” The fact is, Alberta has another much more serious environmental issue than the oil sands—coal-fired power plants—as does the U.S., which is by far the guiltier party.

In emissions terms, the oil sands are small potatoes. While Alberta contributed half the growth in Canada’s emissions between 1990 and 2006, a full quarter of its emissions derive from coal, while only a fraction comes from the oil sands, perhaps four per cent. And neither its oil sands nor its coal plants are going anywhere. Alberta is the only province still building coal-fired plants, even as others phase them out. Keephills 3, a 495-megawatt plant near Edmonton slated to come online in 2011, will have “bigger emissions than any oil sands plant,” says University of Calgary climate change scientist David Keith.

Doug MacLeod, VP of environment for Epcor, which co-owns Keephills 3 with TransAlta, says it will use the cleanest technology available to generate between 12 and 18 per cent less emissions than older plants. But the Pembina Institute estimates it will still spew 236 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per gigajoule—more than any oil sands operation, even taking into account the subsequent burning of oil sands fuel in cars and trucks.

But if Alberta’s coal problem is bad, things are worse in the U.S., leaving it in little position to criticize Canada. U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged as much in Ottawa when he very magnanimously conceded that the U.S. has “issues around coal” to match the issues of Alberta’s oil sands. It was a good-faith gesture, but a modest one. After all, in an interview with Canadian television, Obama pointed out that “oil sands creates a big carbon footprint.” What he failed to mention is how minuscule that footprint is compared to U.S. coal plants, which produce almost two billion tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, 27 per cent of his country’s total greenhouse gases. Those emissions are likely to grow by a third in the next 15 years.

Meanwhile, even this month’s National Geographic exposé concedes that Alberta’s oil sands emissions “account for less than a tenth of one per cent of global CO2 emissions.” So why all the hoopla?

It’s true that the oil sands are Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases, projected to triple to 12 per cent of our emissions by 2020—a truly dramatic arc. “The oil sands represent growth in emissions,” says Pembina’s Chris Severson-Baker. “Coal is a big challenge—but it’s not growing.” Mainly, however, the oil sands have drawn international disapprobation because they’re an easy mark. Photographs of ugly open-pit mines, vast pools of toxic sludge and elephantine trucks have helped win a PR war. Protesting the oil sands is sexy.

But Keith, the U of C scientist who is quoted in the National Geographic story, argues coal should be central to Alberta’s climate change strategy. “It’s much more serious a climate threat and much cheaper to regulate,” he says. “The environment doesn’t care where emissions come from.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.