The Alberta government has introduced legislation capping the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the oil sands at a level higher than the entire emissions of Quebec, but officials admitted on Tuesday the province has no way yet of enforcing the 100-megatonne limit.
Environment Minister Shannon Phillips on Tuesday tabled Bill 25, which would set the limit in law. She said the province's New Democrats expect a wave of innovation by Canada's oil and gas industry will allow Alberta's oil sands to continue growing for decades despite the firm cap.
"Alberta got the oil out of the sand, we can now get the carbon out of the barrel," Ms. Phillips said at the legislature.
The new bill makes Alberta the world's first major oil-producing jurisdiction to cap emissions.
Alberta's oil sands emit 66 megatonnes of GHGs, slightly more than the province of British Columbia, according to federal data. The most recent numbers for Quebec show the province emitted 82.7 megatonnes in 2014. The oil sands are Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse emissions, and the new legislation would allow them to grow by another 50 per cent.
Alberta officials said they expect the oil sands will hit the cap around 2030. Ontario currently plans to reduce all of its emissions to 115 megatonnes by 2030, just slightly more than Alberta's target for its oil sands.
The emissions cap was announced in November, 2015, as a central plank of Premier Rachel Notley's plan to combat climate change. Along with an economy-wide carbon tax, stricter regulations and the complete phase out of coal power, the cap is part of a plan to revamp Alberta's image as a producer of dirty energy.
On Tuesday, Ms. Phillips said she hopes innovation that sharply cuts the emissions required to produce each barrel of oil will keep the industry below the cap. "We have faith in Alberta industries to deliver," she said.
NDP officials said on Tuesday they have yet to decide on how the emissions cap will be monitored and enforced. There could be a mixture of tougher regulations, financial penalties or hikes to the carbon tax to spur innovation and keep the cap in place. Oil and gas leaders have raised concerns about which of the projects the province has already approved will be allowed to go forward when oil prices increase. If each project were built using current technology, 100 megatonnes would quickly be exceeded, provincial data indicate.
Decisions about how to enforce the law will be made in 2017, after an 18-member Oil Sands Advisory Group reports to the government on how the cap should be maintained. The group's advice is expected in the fall.
The new limit will have exceptions. Emissions from electricity production in co-generation plants would be exempt. Oil upgraders operational as of this year would be able to emit 110 megatonnes.
The provincial cabinet could also exempt low-emissions producers, experimental projects and enhanced oil-recovery operations.
The Progressive Conservative Party's interim leader, Ric McIver, said the bill is not in Alberta's best interest.
"The government has already made a decision to strand billions of dollars' worth of coal in the ground, and now they're looking at stranding billions of dollars of petroleum products in the ground," he said.
Alex Ferguson, a vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the oil and gas industry recognizes the need to focus on reducing emissions. "Our membership is completely aligned that the presence of a limit on emissions, unheard of around the planet on any industrial activity, is a stake in the ground that means we need to focus on this," he said.
The new limit could be the incentive needed to spur improvements in reducing emissions, said Simon Dyer, the associate Alberta director for the Pembina Institute. A member of the oil sands advisory group, Mr. Dyer said data from the Calgary-based environmental think tank show emissions from the oil sands have improved little over the past decade.
With a report from The Canadian Press