Some weeks ago, the government of Alberta wrote to me—and apparently to a number of other environmentalists and environmental groups. We are all subjects of an “anti-Alberta energy inquiry,” and have the right to respond to charges that are being levelled by a government commission. Alberta, it turns out, has spent three and a half million dollars in an effort to find out whether foreigners are unfairly targeting its oil-and-gas industry. I’m mentioned dozens of times in the draft report, due to be finished this week, and it contains links to lots of articles of mine explaining why the province’s vast tar-sands project should be curtailed.
It’s like getting a text from an old flame demanding to hear once again why you’ve broken up. The truth is, I’m not anti-Alberta in the least. I think that it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet, from the ice fields above Jasper to the great delta of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers in Wood Buffalo National Park. I’ve lectured at its universities, hiked its trails, had Tegan and Sara high on my playlist. Lake Louise! Lake Minnewanka! The Calgary Stampede! Edmonton has the largest mall in North America. Calgary was once voted the world’s cleanest city, edging out Honolulu. What’s not to love?
But Alberta has an enormous amount of carbon beneath its soil. If it gets dug up and burned, then it will be calculably harder to limit the damage from climate change. The best estimate for economically recoverable oil in the province is about a hundred and seventy-three billion barrels. Burning that much, according to one calculation, would produce about a hundred and twelve billion tons of carbon dioxide, which is twenty-eight per cent of the world’s total remaining carbon budget if we want to have a fifty-per-cent chance (not a guarantee—a fifty-per-cent chance) of meeting the climate goals we set in Paris. Lay aside for the moment the devastation caused by mining the sludgy tar sands for oil. There’s no way that a country with less than one per cent of the world’s population can lay claim to more than a quarter of the atmosphere.
Alberta started feeling pressure with the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have run from the tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Indigenous people and Midwestern farmers and ranchers decried the damage to their lands and waters; many others (myself included) joined in to point out the damage that the pipeline would do to the climate. People went to jail, marched in huge numbers, and won: KXL won’t be built. In the process, the spotlight cast on the absurdity of the tar-sands project persuaded investors and oil companies around the world to start backing away. Some of the retreat was purely financial: in a world that will need less oil, the attraction of going to a landlocked continental interior and trying to separate petroleum from sand is waning. But some of it was in response to those efforts—banks and oil companies knew that the tar sands were in the spotlight.