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Alberta has such an opportunity to lead the world in sustainable development of energy. It's too bad - no, it's a tragedy - that the province is not seizing the chance.

Last month, Premier Ed Stelmach's government boasted that Alberta was to become the "first in North America to impose greenhouse gas cuts on large industrial emitters."

What the government did was impose a 12-per-cent reduction in emission "intensity." Companies were lowering intensity anyway, so the reduction was not a severe hardship.

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More important, reducing intensity while total output soars from the oil sands (extracting oil from the sands produces two to three times more carbon emissions than conventional oil) means merely slowing down increases in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), not reducing them in absolute terms.

Alberta is by far the largest per capita emitter of GHGs in Canada, courtesy of a huge energy sector and of agriculture. Leading the world in sustainable development of energy would mean exploiting that energy while reducing the nasty side effects of GHGs.

If it moved aggressively, the world would beat a path to its door, and to its companies, to learn. The province's oil and natural gas are going to be needed. The International Energy Agency forecasts that global oil product demand ( http://www.oilmarketreport.org) will increase by 2.2 per cent a year until 2012. There is no sign thereafter that demand will slow down worldwide.

Yes, advanced industrial economies' demand for oil has slowed, or rather the rate of increase has slowed. But in large countries of the developing world, demand has been increasing at 3.6 per cent.

Reports the IEA: "These countries are moving toward the threshold level of income [about $3,000 per capita]where their consumers buy cars" and appliances.

Therefore, demand will continue to rise, and new supplies will be more expensive to produce, as in Alberta, where conventional oil supplies are declining while expensive oil-sands production increases.

Big new oil-sands projects are going to happen. The question is when and under what conditions. Their product is needed; their GHG byproducts are not. The same can be said for coal-fired electricity, coal being cheap and abundant.

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The Alberta government has promised a comprehensive energy policy statement. As with so many other policy fields (climate change, royalties, land use), the Stelmach government is consulting "stakeholders." That means, among others, the oil companies, most of which now recognize, however reluctantly, that the issue of climate change will not disappear.

An aggressive policy, rather than the prevailing laissez-faire one, would essentially say that no new oil-sands plants can proceed until technological changes are introduced that reduce and eventually all but eliminate GHGs.

These include carbon sequestration (burying carbon in deep underground deposits), a carbon pipeline (about which the Alberta government has been nattering for a decade or more), a cap-and-trade market for carbon, and, most important, a steadily increasing price on carbon emissions. Similarly, there should be no new coal-fired plants unless and until "clean coal" technology is introduced, such as SaskPower is contemplating.

Last month, the Alberta government asked experts for their advice on how to proceed with climate change. (The detailed summary of proceedings is on the government's website.) All these ideas were impressed upon the government by the experts it consulted.

Of course, not all technologies are at hand, and rethinking how to develop the oil sands will take some time, including the vast amount of water they need and using valuable (and polluting) natural gas for extraction.

Additional costs will be born by companies, government and, eventually, consumers. Figuring out, for example, how much the companies and government should contribute to a carbon pipeline won't be easy.

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But the oil-sands rush has overheated the local economy in Fort McMurray, driven up the costs of materials, created a serious labour shortage, strained the environment, inflated the cost of projects and, of course, contributed to the absolute increase in GHGs.

A free-market government that wanted oil-sands development, but insisted that it be done differently, would have to be bold, willing to take on parts of the powerful industry, and set clear long-term policies - in short, be a Schwarzenegger North. Anybody seen that kind of government in Alberta?

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