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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Gary Mason

Redford fumbles the oil sands file Add to ...

When Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives defeated the upstart Wildrose Party in the province’s recent election, there was a shuddering relief in the environmental community.

During the campaign, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith questioned the science of climate change. She was critical of the provincial tax on carbon emissions and unapologetic about an oil sands industry routinely condemned for its outsized contribution to global pollution.

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Her position stood in contrast to Alison Redford’s. The Tory leader at least seemed to understand that the oil sands have an image problem that needs to be addressed, and that making headway on that front means making headway on reducing the condemnable volume of greenhouse gas emissions for which the oil sands are responsible.

Recently, Ms. Redford’s administration trumpeted a government-sponsored report that seemed to show some real advancement on that front. As much as anything, it was intended for readers in Europe, where officials are proposing a fuel-quality directive that would significantly hurt Alberta’s market opportunities there.

In a nutshell, the policy assigns a greenhouse-gas intensity factor to all fuel types in a bid to see EU countries reduce their emissions intensity from all sources. Under the plan, importers will likely avoid fuels with higher emissions values in order to meet their limit. In the case of Alberta crude, that value is more than 20-per-cent higher than fuels derived from conventional sources.

Both the Alberta and federal governments have been furiously lobbying European officials to change the policy on the grounds that it is based on flawed, unscientific assumptions and that emissions from the oil sands aren’t nearly as bad as they’re made out to be.

Initially, it looked like the report by Jacobs Consulting backed up that claim. It appeared to show that oil sands crude has an emissions rating not much greater than many common crudes consumed in Europe, a far cry from the 23-per-cent higher value that the EU has been suggesting is the case.

All that was fine until some bright minds at the Calgary-based Pembina Institute carried out a more in-depth examination of the Jacobs tract. What they found was a study that focuses on oil sands projects using extraction methods that emit fewer greenhouse gases but are not representative of the technologies most widely used in the province.

Where the provincial government said the report shows that the carbon intensity of Alberta oil-sands-derived crude is within 12 per cent of gasoline and diesel from crude oils refined in Europe, the Pembina Institute reported that it actually says that the “emissions intensity of better-than-average oil sands falls within 12 per cent of the highest- carbon types of conventional crude refined in the EU.”

The italics for emphasis are the Institute’s.

To put it another way, Pembina contends the report cherry-picked the best examples of oil sands emissions and compared them to the worst GHG rates in Europe. It’s significant to note that even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers acknowledges that Jacobs zeroed in on future technologies that currently are not widely in use in Alberta.

Now, if Pembina was able to see through the apparent limitations of the Jacobs report, the EU will too. And so there seems little chance the report will do anything to move Europe off its present position as it pertains to its proposed fuel-source initiative.

Perhaps Ms. Redford would be better off highlighting the few oil sands success stories upon which the Jacobs report is largely based. They show that there is a pathway to lower emissions, but it takes willpower, imagination and, yes, money. In future, it will also likely take government regulation.

Right now, the Alberta government is not doing enough to force change upon an oil industry obsessed with the bottom line at the expense of the environment. The price the government has set on carbon is too low to prompt companies to make the kinds of changes needed to lower their greenhouse gas rates. Paying the paltry tax on emissions that is now in place is a far cheaper option than introducing new, more efficient and climate-friendly technologies.

To get the world’s attention, to get Europe’s attention, Ms. Redford is going to have to do more than produce reports that offer a skewed and somewhat misleading picture of the province’s oil sands reality.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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