Why oilsands emissions look so different in federal and provincial reports

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told an American audience earlier this month that greenhouse fuel emissions from the province’s oilsands whole round 67 or 68 megatonnes per yr, “right now.”

That prompted some confusion, because it differs from numbers compiled by the federal authorities. 

The Globe and Mail was the primary to publicly level out a “20-megatonne gap” between Kenney’s numbers and Ottawa’s latest submission to the UN, which pegs oilsands emissions at 87 megatonnes this yr.

That, it seems, was a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparability.

The Alberta authorities later clarified that, when Kenney stated oilsands emissions are 67 megatonnes “right now,” he was speaking about 2018. That’s the newest yr for which the province has estimates of precise emissions. Those estimates aren’t but publicly obtainable in any element, as specialists are nonetheless finalizing the precise numbers.

The federal determine of 87 megatonnes, in the meantime, is a projection of what emissions will likely be for 2020.

So the 20-megatonne hole was largely because of evaluating various things (estimates vs. projections) from completely different years (2018 vs. 2020). But, even if you have a look at previous emissions, a notable hole stays — of about 10 megatonnes.

That could not sound like so much, within the context of Canada’s roughly 700 megatonnes of annual greenhouse fuel output. But take into account how a lot political wrangling and public protest there was over the now-withdrawn Teck Frontier oilsands mine. The annual emissions from that challenge would have been about 4 megatonnes.

In that context, the 10-megatonne discrepancy definitely issues. It represents 2½ Frontier mines.

And although the Teck challenge is now off the desk, the oilsands cap stays related to the nationwide debate over balancing useful resource improvement with local weather change.

Legislation however no regulation

Alberta’s 100-megatonne cap on annual oilsands emissions was created by way of laws in 2015 by the province’s earlier NDP authorities, however was by no means made enforceable by way of laws.

As a part of its backwards and forwards with Alberta’s new UCP authorities over the Frontier challenge, Ottawa formally requested the province to give the cap regulatory teeth.

Even with out Frontier, the federal authorities stated the checklist of oilsands initiatives which have already been authorised however not but undertaken would push Alberta as excessive as 130 megatonnes, if all these initiatives had been to really go forward. In principle, Teck might additionally convey the Frontier proposal again someday sooner or later.

And, in its assertion withdrawing Frontier, the corporate described itself as “strong supporters” of “climate policies such as legislated caps for oilsands emissions.”

But for a cap to exist, there should first be some settlement on what oilsands emissions really are. So why is there such a distinction between the federal and provincial numbers?

That’s not a straightforward query to reply. It took a few weeks of back-and-forth with officers from every stage of presidency to type out.

Here’s what we realized.

Cap-applicable emissions in 2015: 68 Mt or 58 Mt?

First, the discrepancy. Let’s have a look at 2015 for instance yr, to maintain issues easy.

According to figures beforehand offered by the federal authorities, there have been 68 megatonnes of emissions relevant beneath Alberta’s oilsands cap that yr.

The province, in the meantime, says cap-applicable emissions had been really 58 megatonnes in 2015.

Why are these figures off by 10 megatonnes?

There are a number of causes, together with:

  • An obvious error within the preliminary federal figures, which didn’t account for Saskatchewan’s emissions.
  • Different strategies for calculating an emissions exemption for cogeneration of electrical energy.
  • Different interpretations of whether or not main bitumen or “CHOPS” (chilly heavy oil manufacturing with sand) is included.
  • “Residual differences” within the strategies — and function — of the provincial and federal calculations.

Here’s how that 10-megatonne discrepancy breaks down.

Emissions from Saskatchewan: 2 Mt

This one is comparatively simple to know.

In a press release offered to CBC News earlier this month, the federal authorities stated Alberta’s gross oilsands emissions (earlier than cap exemptions) totalled 71 megatonnes in 2015.

It later corrected that determine, saying it was the entire for Canadian oilsands emissions, together with roughly two megatonnes from amenities in Saskatchewan.

OK, in order that’s two out of 10 down, leaving us with eight extra megatonnes to clarify.

Differences in cogeneration calculations: 3 Mt

As a part of their operations, some oilsands amenities additionally produce electrical energy that’s offered to the provincial energy grid. This is named cogeneration and, beneath Alberta’s laws, it isn’t counted towards the business’s emissions cap.

But the provincial and federal governments calculate the quantity of this exemption in numerous methods.

The federal authorities’s numbers are based mostly on knowledge reported to Statistics Canada by industrial amenities as a part of an annual survey of gas consumption. Environment Canada then makes use of that knowledge to estimate greenhouse-gas emissions from cogeneration at oilsands amenities.

This “top-down” methodology varies from the province’s “bottom-up” strategy, stated Justin Wheler, government director of emissions regulation and compliance with the Alberta authorities.

“The federal … adjustment for cogen is going to be a little bit different than what we have,” he stated.

“When we adjust for cogen, we take the whole cogen — whether it’s on-site or off-site, because there are both — and we treat them both the same.”

For 2015, the province calculated about six megatonnes of cogen exemptions, whereas the feds got here out with three.

That three-megatonne distinction accounts for one more chunk of the discrepancy.

And it leaves us with 5 megatonnes left to clarify.

Primary bitumen or CHOPS: 2 Mt (roughly)

This a part of the discrepancy comes all the way down to differing interpretations of whether or not to incorporate emissions from main bitumen extraction towards the cap.

The province would not embody any such oil manufacturing — additionally recognized by the acronym CHOPS, which stands for cold heavy oil production with sand — in its calculations, however the federal authorities does.

How a lot in emissions are we speaking about, precisely? The province will not say. Wheler stated the exact numbers are confidential however did supply a tough estimate of “two to three megatonnes, depending on the year you’re looking at.”

In a latest, independent analysis, in the meantime, the Pembina Institute projected emissions from main bitumen to be roughly two megatonnes for 2020. So we’ll go along with two, as nicely, for 2015.

That leaves roughly three megatonnes’ price of discrepancy to account for.

And that is the place issues get a bit of fuzzy.

‘Residual variations’

As a part of its worldwide obligations, Canada recurrently prepares a high-level accounting of its greenhouse fuel emissions. This is a big and sophisticated doc often called the National Inventory Report or NIR, and it should meet United Nations requirements for verification.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s facility-by-facility reporting is used to calculate what an organization owes (or will get credit score for) beneath the province’s large-emitter carbon-pricing policy.

This is the place these “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches that we talked about earlier come again into play.

Wheler, with the Alberta authorities, stated the province has all the time accepted the NIR “as the official and total inventory for the country and the province.” But it is a essentially completely different kind of report, he stated, than what Alberta produces for the aim of calculating provincial carbon-price obligations.

“They’re not going to dig into the facility-by-facility data for that kind of national inventory compilation and approval process,” he stated. “So there’s always going to be some minor differences there … that neither I nor, I suspect, my federal counterparts would be fussed about.”

Wheler stated he is glad that these primary variations in strategy account for any remaining discrepancy between the provincial and federal numbers, or a minimum of put them inside a rounding error of each other.

So which will clarify the 10-megatonne discrepancy in principle — however what does it imply, in follow?

If the provincial and federal governments use completely different calculations, interpretations and approaches to quantify Alberta’s oilsands emissions, whose model reigns supreme?

That might be as a lot a matter of politics as coverage.

Cap as a bargaining chip

Around this time final yr, there was some dialogue among the many United Conservative Party about scrapping the cap altogether, however in the end Kenney opted to not, as soon as his celebration received the April 2019 election and shaped authorities.

The premier has since described the cap as “academic” since Alberta, by his math, is “nowhere close to hitting it.”

Not so quick, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has stated: “Our modelling shows we’re actually approaching the 100-megatonne cap in 2030.”

That modelling is predicated, in fact, on federal interpretations of cap-applicable emissions which — as we have seen — yield some considerably completely different outcomes than what the province comes up with.

During the Teck deliberations, the cap turned one thing of a bargaining chip between the federal and provincial governments. And so, too, might a few of these interpretations, even now.

In his latest letter asking Alberta to present the cap regulatory enamel, Wilkinson additionally laid out the dilemma new oilsands initiatives create for the federal authorities in attempting to stability financial improvement with local weather commitments.

Those embody the Paris Agreement, beneath which Canada pledged to cut back its annual emissions to 511 megatonnes by 2030, and the federal authorities’s longer-term promise to convey emissions to web zero by 2050.

Canada’s precise, projected and goal greenhouse fuel emissions from 2005 to 2050. (Chart: Robson Fletcher/CBC, Data: Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Federal officers who do emissions projections, in the meantime, instructed CBC News these projections would probably change if Alberta had been to introduce particular laws for its 100-megatonne cap, for 2 important causes.

Firstly, imposing the cap might change the forecasts for oil production put out by the Canada Energy Regulator, that are the first supply of information used to make projections of future emissions.

Secondly, they stated if Alberta had been to spell out precisely the way to interpret a number of the points which have led to the discrepancy — akin to cogeneration calculation strategies and whether or not to incorporate or exclude main bitumen — the federal authorities would incorporate these interpretations into its projections. Up till now, the federal officers stated they have been counting on their finest interpretations of Alberta’s 2015 laws.

The province, for its half, hasn’t dominated out regulating the cap however hasn’t proven a ton of enthusiasm for the concept, both, accusing the federal authorities of shifting the goalposts and bringing the cap ahead on the 11th hour in discussions about Teck Frontier.

“We are willing to have a conversation about potential regulations around our cap,” Environment Minister Jason Nixon stated earlier than the challenge was withdrawn.

Of course, whether or not they’re counted as a part of Alberta’s cap or not, all oilsands emissions depend towards Canada’s whole greenhouse fuel stock. And that very same Pembina evaluation we heard about earlier additionally discovered that ongoing progress in oilsands output has made the business the fastest-growing supply of emissions within the nation, placing it on a “collision course” with nationwide local weather targets.

So even with Teck off the desk, a regulated cap should determine into the development-versus-emissions debate. But to have a coherent dialogue concerning the deserves of placing a tough restrict on oilsands emissions, we first want to come back to a typical perceive of what these emissions are.


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