Oilsands pollution on collision course with Canada's climate plan

Barry Saxifrage
Oilsands expansion is digging Canada a deeper and deeper hole writes Barry Saxifrage. Photo by Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

 February 20th 2018

Carbon pollution from oilsands expansion is radically undermining Canada's plan to fight climate change. On the present course, almost everything else in Canada would have to shut down for the country to meet its climate change targets.

  • Accelerating climate failure — Oilsands expansion is devouring our national climate goals.
  • Wildly unbalanced — Oilsands’ share of Canada’s climate budget is out of proportion to the relatively small contribution to jobs and GDP.
  • Extreme actors — Canadians are outliers in both pace and scale of fossil carbon extraction compared to other countries.

To illustrate the accelerating threat posed by oilsands pollution, I created the chart below. It shows the percentage of Canada's climate targets eaten up by climate pollution from Alberta's oilsands industry.1 As you can quickly see, the oilsands’ share keeps rising relentlessly. Back in 1990, oilsands pollution caused two per cent of our country's total. Since then it has accelerated upwards, grabbing:

Oilsands share of Canada's climate targets
  • 6% of Canada’s 2005 target set by the Mulroney government
  • 9% of the 2010 target set by the Chretien government
  • 15% of the 2020 target set by the Harper government
Alberta's "hard cap" allows just one industry to consume Canada's climate goals - by 2050 the oilsands industry will take up 78% of Canada's carbon budget

The oilsands industry is projected to expand another sixty percent by 2030. At that level, oilsands will grab:

  • 22% of our first Paris Accord target, in 2030
  • 78% of Canada's 2050 target

Both Stephen Harper's Conservative government and Justin Trudeau's Liberal government agreed to Canada's 2030 target. The latest projections, however, expect us over-pollute by 125 million tonnes of CO2.1b Rising oilsands pollution makes up two-thirds of that failure.1c


How much more of our nation's climate budget are we going to hand over to this single industry in a single province? Apparently, a whole lot more.

Oilsands 'hard cap' leaves nothing for rest of Canada

Alberta’s Notley government enacted a 100 MtCO2 “hard cap" for the oilsands. This cap allows oilsands climate pollution to surge another sixty per cent. Current projections show industry will hit that level around 2030.1e

This "hard cap" is being promoted as a key part of Canada's climate solution.

Oilsands share of Canada's climate targets, with hard cap highlighted

Decide for yourself....

Here's that same chart from above, with the "hard cap" highlighted in red. This cap allows oilsands pollution to rise to 115 MtCO2 — eating up nearly a quarter of Canada's climate target in 2030.1e

Continuing at this capped level, the oilsands would gobble up 78 per cent of our nation's climate target for 2050.

But we won't have to wait for 2050 for the train wreck. That's because the Paris Accord requires all nations to set increasingly ambitious targets every five years. To illustrate what that might look like for Canada, my chart shows straight-line targets for 2035 and 2040. In this scenario, the "hard cap" eats up a third of our national target within five years of kicking in. Within ten years of kicking in, it demands half.

Instead of being part of a climate solution for Canada, Alberta's "hard cap" allows just one industry to consume our nation's climate goals and obligations. The trend is the threat.

Oilsands jobs, GDP and CO2

What about the argument by bitumen expansionists that the oilsands industry is just too critical — in jobs and GDP — to require reductions like other businesses must make in their climate pollution?

I created the chart below to help illustrate the relative size of each. It lets you compare the percentage of Canadian jobs, GDP and climate pollution from the oilsands industry.


Oilsands share of Canada's jobs, GDP and climate targets

The black bar on the right shows the same info as my first chart — the percentage of our country's climate goals eaten up by oilsands pollution over time.


The blue bar on the left shows the percentage of Canadian jobs created by the oilsands industry. Estimates by Statistics Canada, Canadian Energy Research Institute and PetroLMI all put direct employment in oilsands at well below one half of one per cent of national employment.2


The green bar in the middle shows the percentage of GDP produced by the oilsands. Statistics Canada puts the direct contribution at around 2.5 per cent of Canadian GDP today. 3

Does this seem like a fair and workable balance to you?

Heading into the future, this imbalance is likely to grow ever more extreme. The oilsands CO2 share is set to surge dramatically… but the oilsands’ share of jobs and GDP isn't likely to shift much at all. That's because, according to the National Energy Board, the overall economy is projected to expand at roughly the same rate as bitumen production.3c

In fact, when it comes to Canadian jobs, the oilsands contribution seems more likely to fall even if bitumen expansion continues.

'De-manning' the oilsands

If Canada is going to be forced to abandon our climate hopes and commitments to support job creation in one of Alberta's industries, then shouldn't that industry at least be required to crank out some amazing job growth relative to the rest of the national economy?

Oilsands labour productivity trends

Sadly, that seems unlikely.

Instead, the oilsands industry is aggressively pushing to reduce the number of workers needed per barrel. "Increasing labour productivity," to use industry’s phrasing.

Take a look at my chart on the right. That data comes from PetroLMI's recent report on "Labour Productivity in Canada’s Oil and Gas Industry." It shows the oilsands industry on track to reduce workforce by 21 per cent per barrel between 2010 and 2021.2c

All sectors of the industry — In situ, mining and upgrading — are significantly reducing workers per barrel.

Oilsands share of Canada's jobs and climate targets

Longer-term workforce reductions, via automation, are rolling out as well. In one example, Suncor Energy recently announcedthey are shifting to driverless trucks. In another example, flying drones are reported to be expanding rapidly.

A Cenovus Energy executive told investors: "For new next-generation SAGD projects, it’s a longer-term vision to move towards zero manning in the field … If we can put production systems on the seabed, we can de-man oilsands."

Even if oilsands manage to maintain their current share of Canadian jobs, the massive imbalance with their climate pollution will continue to grow. To illustrate, here's a version of my first chart with oilsands jobs added. It shows what happens if the oilsands maintain their share of jobs into the future.

But isn’t everyone else doing the same thing?

The final argument I hear from the bitumen expansionists is that Canadians are just doing the same kind of fossil carbon extraction as our peers. What about those Americans extracting all that fracked gas, shale oil and literally blowing off mountain tops to carve out the coal underneath?

Good question. Let's take a look.

Fossil carbon extracted per capita. USA and Canada.

My final chart shows how much fossil carbon is extracted per person in each country. This is the combined total from all coal, oil and natural gas, based on data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy.4

Back in 1990, Canadians and Americans weren’t far apart.

Since then, however, as the climate crisis has unfolded, we've headed in opposite directions.

Americans have slightly reduced how much climate pollution (fossil carbon) they dig up per person. In contrast, Canadians have dramatically increased ours. In fact, we now extract twice as much per person as the Americans.

The chart also shows that the Canadian surge has been caused by explosive expansion of Alberta's oilsands industry. To appreciate how radical this surge has been, compare just the amount of fossil carbon we're extracting from the oilsands to the amount the Americans are extracting from all fossil fuels: oil, natural gas and coal combined.