Oil Sands Threaten Canada's Copenhagen Pledge

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has drawn attention, not only to deepwater drilling, but to other unconventional forms of extraction.

One such environmentally destructive practice is oil sands development in Alberta, Canada. Described in a 2008 report (PDF) as "the most destructive project on Earth," oil sands extraction leaks approximately three million gallons of contaminated water into surrounding rivers and groundwater each day, in addition to emitting unusually high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG).

In addition to the risks caused by environmental damage, companies engaged in oil sands extraction also face the threat of legal challenges from local indigenous communities affected by the practice. In 2010, shareowner resolutions addressing oil sands extraction were filed at BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell, and won substantial percentages of shareowner votes.

In a recently published briefing note (PDF), the Pembina Institute, a Canadian organization focused on society's transition to sustainable energy production and consumption, reports that GHG emissions from oil sands extraction increased by 121 percent from 1990 to 2008. Furthermore, the paper continues, oil sands emissions are projected to triple between 2008 and 2020.

As a result of the extractive activities in the province, GHG emissions in the province "are more than three times those of either Canada or the U.S." on a per capita basis, according to the report.

In Copenhagen last December, the Canadian government committed to a 17 percent decrease in GHG emissions by 2020. However, Canada has not yet produced a plan for meeting the target. The paper reports, "If emissions rise as projected under Environment Canada's business-as-usual scenario, they will reach 28 percent above 2005 levels by 2020, with oil sands expansion accounting for nearly half of the projected increase."

Furthermore, in Alberta, the government "has released draft standards that would allow combustion on dirtier sources of fuel for oil sands," which, if implemented, "could lead to a 66 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions per barrel produced," according to the paper.

In a recent statement, Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, noted that "Between 1990 and 2008, Alberta was responsible for over half (52 percent) of Canada's emissions growth, despite being responsible for only 18 percent of GDP growth and 19 percent of the growth in population."

"While oil sands development in Alberta contributes to the national economy," Raynolds continued, "It comes with a high pollution cost that isn't being accounted for and isn't being adequately addressed."

This article originally appeared at SocialFunds.com and is reprinted with permission.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user species_snob.