Climate Action Energy Sustainability and Heritage

Pathways to a low carbon future: Athabasca and Alberta on climate’s front line

The moraine in front of Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

© J. Ashley Nixon

Glacial retreat

I was just below the above same spot with my friend and fellow student, Dean Mitchell in 1979. Our strenuous season of tobacco picking in Ontario was done and with hard-earned dollars in our pockets, we headed west, hitch-hiking towards the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. A curiosity with geomorphology was enough to make a detour off the Trans Canada Highway and spend a freezing night under canvas. It was September yet winter was already coming. Our objective was to travel along the Icefields Parkway and explore the Athabasca Glacier, one of the more accessible parts of the vast Columbia Icefield.

The following morning, we meandered across the moraine until we reached the glacier’s snout, the whiteness of the ice blurring into the cloudy sky. We tentatively trod around the ice-rock margins, cautiously checking for crevasses. Climate change was not on our minds back then. It would over three decades (just a few biological years) before I would return to see how far the glacier had retreated. I was shockingly surprised.

When I returned again this year, the September weather was just like it was on that first visit. But the glacier that is the source of the mighty Athabasca River, a key resource for the oil sands business, was not to be seen. It took another scramble up a high ridge of stranded boulders before we could see the ice. It felt like geological time was picking up pace. As a bitumen-black raven settled on, then flew off that 1982 marker stone, I shuddered and felt, as a Canadian citizen and proud Albertan, our time had come. It was time for us to step up and take real action on climate change. That day finally came yesterday.

A raven rests on the growing moraine in front of the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta © J. Ashley Nixon
A raven rests on the growing moraine in front of the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta © J. Ashley Nixon

Take off the broken record

Meaningful action was long overdue. Our efforts, for more than a decade in Shell, to work with Pembina and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as First Nations, and seek out solutions around CO2 emissions from the oil sands were collaborative and sincere but the ears of government were closed.
For too long, the promise for change on climate policy was like a broken record. Progress was, well, glacial.

A new era for collaborative carbon politics in Canada

Premier Rachel Notley revealed her Climate Leadership Plan on Sunday at the Telus World of Science, Edmonton where, just a couple of weeks before, I had been to share in the unveiling of Shell’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, Quest. Premier Notley was joined on stage by many Albertan supporters. Not just members of her cabinet, like the passionately climate-committed Minister of the Environment, Shannon Phillips, but representatives from industry. Shell’s Lorraine Mitchelmore was there, alongside leaders from three other oil sands companies, Canadian Natural, Cenovus Energy and Suncor Energy. All of them had turned up to tangibly support the Government of Alberta’s climate plan as it relates to the oil sands, the most significant growing source of emissions in the province.

First Nations Chiefs and NGO representatives were also present, like Pembina’s Ed Whittingham. Clear demonstration that we have entered a new era for carbon politics in Canada; one where the voices of society have been sought out and heard (see the new Climate Change Panel report) as we face up to our collective responsibilities on carbon pollution and search for real solutions for the environment as well as the economy of Alberta.

Shell's Scotford Upgrader where oil sands bitumen is turned into synthetic crude. © J. Ashley Nixon
Shell’s Scotford Upgrader where oil sands bitumen is turned into synthetic crude.
© J. Ashley Nixon

Climate leadership in Alberta

Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan comes in timely fashion, just ahead of COP 21 in Paris at the end of November. It is a plan that Albertans can feel proud to have presented in the City of Light. A plan with ambition that holistically embraces the social, environmental and economic agenda. A plan that can perhaps begin to shrug off claims that Alberta’s oil sands production is some of the dirtiest oil in the world and false accusations about the overall significance of their emissions. As a comparison, Alberta’s oil sands currently emit around 70 Mt (megatonnes) of CO2 per year. This is not too far off the emissions of the three top polluting coal-fired power stations in the USA, the Scherer and Bowen Plants in Georgia and the Miller Plant in Alabama (all of the USA’s coal-fired power stations-6,000 of them-emitted 2,159 Mt in 2011).

What we’re going to do in Alberta

Premier Notley’s speech focused on “what we’re going to do” in Alberta. There are five components:
1. Alberta will move away from coal and towards clean power. There will be an accelerated phase-out of coal (all coal emissions out by 2030). Two-thirds of existing coal-fired electricity to be replaced by renewable energy.
2. A carbon price will be introduced, starting at $20 per tonne in January 2017, rising to $30 per tonne in January 2018. Significantly, the Alberta carbon price will be revenue-neutral, fully recycled back into the Alberta economy.
3. An overall oil sands emissions limit will be introduced (it currently sits at around 70 Mt per year and will be capped at 100 Mt).
4. Action on reducing methane emissions on a par with the emissions reductions that we will come from phasing out coal.
5. Alberta will follow other provinces in Canada and implement an energy efficiency program.

As of yesterday, Alberta put on the brakes to stop being part of the climate change problem and become a leader in solving the problem.

Read here for more on the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan.


2 comments on “Pathways to a low carbon future: Athabasca and Alberta on climate’s front line

  1. Pingback: Pathways to a low carbon future: You have 3 minutes to speak, lead & stay below 2 degrees #COP21 #Paris | NixonsCan

  2. Pingback: 15 pics from ’15: NixonsCan top #photos from 2015 | NixonsCan

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