Six months ago, it would have been a sucker’s bet. A serious climate plan from the province of Alberta, Canada? Sure…. and Senator James Inhofe is about to swear off snowballs to find work as a solar panel installer. Are we talking about the same Alberta that sits on top of the world’s largest known reservoir of tar sands oil? For Alberta to cut back on tar sands would be like the Koch brothers fighting over who gets to ask Hillary Clinton to the prom.
But as we just saw in Paris when 195 nations signed the most important climate agreement in history, the world is changing. No longer can a rational person look at Alberta’s tar sands without also seeing how dangerous this gargantuan “carbon bomb” is to our climate. When the entire world is challenging itself to cut carbon emissions, extracting and burning tar sands oil starts to feel like conspicuous combustion.
And so, last November 22, the new premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, announced a new climate action plan that, for the first time, will place a limit on emissions from tar sands extraction. In other words, tar sands mining will continue but be capped at 100 megatons of carbon emissions a year. (The plan also includes phasing out coal-fired power plants by 2030 while increasing renewable energy and curbing methane pollution.)
So is a cap on tar sands emissions a good thing? Certainly, the fewer emissions the better. But the takeaway from the Paris climate agreement is unmistakable: Tar sands, like many fossil fuel reserves, will need to remain in the ground. Now, had Premier Notley suggested that in oil-rich Alberta, she would probably have been tarred and feathered, so she deserves kudos for sticking her neck out even halfway. But the goal should never be just to limit tar sands emissions, but to eliminate them. If even a climate-ambitious politician like Notley can’t do that, who can?
We will. And by “we” I mean the global climate movement that includes the Sierra Club and everyone else who cares about protecting our climate. Here’s our immediate task: Stop the tar sands industry from expanding. That’s why it was so important to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. But Keystone XL was just one pipeline project, and that victory was just the beginning of our resistance.
I’ve written before about Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper — the only pipeline I know of that’s actually named after a type of extreme weather (a type of storm that also travels from Canada to the U.S.). Enbridge wants to circumvent the approval process for expanding the Clipper by diverting the tar sands oil through an existing pipeline just for the border crossing.
The Sierra Club has been part of a coalition of tribal and environmental groups fighting the Clipper in federal court for more than a year. On December 9, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ruled the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. Does that mean clear sailing for the Alberta Clipper? Not a chance. We will fight that pipeline — and every tar sands pipeline — until tar sands extraction stops for good. And although the courts may not be willing to call Enbridge on its pipeline duplicity, the Obama administration still can. The court’s decision simply refocuses attention on the key decision-maker for the Clipper pipeline: President Obama.
Fossil fuels will fade away. You know it. I know it. Even oil executives have begun to feel it in their bones:Their product’s days are numbered. But for the transition to clean energy to happen fast enough to save our climate, we must keep the pressure on the dirtiest, most polluting energy sources like tar sands. We will be relentless because, with so much at stake, we have no choice. As the Keystone XL fight showed, we’re in it for the long haul. It might not happen today. It might not happen tomorrow. But we will win.
And that’s something you can bet on.