Canada's Lackluster Climate Record and Massive Expansion of Tar Sands Makes Keystone XL Mitigation Impossible

President Obama recently drew national attention to Canada’s poor record on climate:

But I meant what I said; I'm going to evaluate this [the Keystone XL pipeline] based on whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere. And there is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release. President Obama, July 2013

Canada’s failure to reduce emissions from its tar sands sector and lackluster climate record has been brought into focus. But there are also now questions about whether Canada could mitigate for the climate effects of Keystone XL.   Many now agree that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be essential to enable growth of tar sands development in Canada and would therefore have a significant impact on climate.  A new backgrounder from Environmental Defence Canada reveals that Canada’s climate policies are significantly weak and have no chance of improving under the current Conservative government.  In fact, the Canadian government has doggedly pursued expansion of its tar sands sector such that it is now considered impossible for Canada – the world’s tenth largest carbon polluter - to meet its international climate targets.  In truth, Keystone XL will facilitate the continued expansion of tar sands that would add more carbon pollution to our shared climate.  That is why any approval of Keystone XL is incompatible with U.S. efforts to confront and reverse catastrophic climate change. By pushing for a dramatic expansion of tar sands oil development and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to carry it, Canada will never meet its international climate commitments and that should be a concern to the United States.  While the United States is actively moving to slash its carbon pollution, Canada is irresponsibly heading the opposite direction.


Keystone XL would lead to massive increase in global greenhouse gas emissions and would therefore have a significant impact on climate failing to meet President Obama’s “climate test.” A recent analysis from NRDC shows how the Keystone XL would add between 935 million to 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to our atmosphere over the 50 year life span of the project.  This is on a scale similar to some of the most significant and ambitious emissions reduction programs underway in the United States including the first-ever U.S. carbon reduction and fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks and the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Canada's Shocking Climate Record

As the evidence builds showing how Keystone XL exacerbates climate change, there is a focus on Canada’s climate record.  It is shocking to many when they learn that Canada is considered a bad actor when it comes to leadership on climate.  But a review of several key facts reveals that Canada’s record on climate is unfortunately abysmal.

  • Reviews of Canada’s performance on climate protection against 58 countries responsible for 90 percent of the global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions show it the “worst performer of all western countries” below China and the United States.
  • Canada is set to miss its international climate target by a wide margin equivalent to combined carbon pollution emissions of every passenger car, truck, bus, train and plan in Canada.  The reason for missing its international climate target is due to its tar sands sector.
  • In 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change signaling a major retreat from its commitment to climate protection.  Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said, “This is not just big, this is disastrous for Canada,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to be represented by this government.”
  • Commitments that have been made by the current Canadian Conservative government (in power since in 2006) to clean up its tar sands sector have been broken.  In 2007, the government introduced a climate plan which has all since been abandoned.  Under this plan, then-Environment Minister John Baird promised the regulations would apply to all industry emitters including the oil industry. These regulations have never been introduced. In 2008, Prime Minister Harper promised that any new tar sands production would face climate reduction targets.  These limits were never set. 
  • The Canadian government and industry have launched a massive public relations campaign in the United States promoting its support for Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology.   Even after billions of dollars in subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments, there is only one commercial CCS facility currently proposed for one operation.  There would need to be more than 60 additional CCS facilities of a similar size in operation to offset rising tar sands emissions.


Canada’s historic greenhouse gas emissions and projected 2020 emissions. Data source: Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 1990-2011 and Canada’s Emissions Trends 2012. (Note that Environment Canada anticipates a credit of 25 Mt in 2020 from new international accounting rules for the land-use, land-use change and forestry sector.)

New rules for the oil and gas sector will likely be weak

There is speculation that new rules limited carbon emissions from Canada’s tar sands sector will do the trick to address its tar sands emissions problem.  For over six years, the federal government has failed to deliver new rules that would limit emissions from Canada’s oil and gas industry including its tar sands sector.  Just recently, the federal government missed another deadline to move ahead on new regulations for this sector.  But even if the proposed regulations materialize, the most aggressive option on the table (a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas intensity combined with a $40/ton level on certain emissions) would not enable Canada to meet its international climate target to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

And it is important to be wary when looking at Canada’s sector-based approach to regulating emissions from its tar sands sector.  Its regulations on the coal-sector now finalized were progressively weakened from earlier versions and their ultimate impact was cut in half after industry balked.  These regulations are so weak they will not be implemented until 2062.

In fact, rather than adopt needed aggressive climate policies to counteract rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions from its tar sands sector, it has actively  weakened dozens of Canada’s most cherished environmental laws to enable expansion of development including reneging on environmental protection policies that are designed to protect water, air, land, wildlife, and climate.

Tar sands expansion enabled by Keystone XL cannot be mitigated

Instead of adopting new climate policies, Canada has been instead pursuing a massive expansion of its tar sands sector that would be enabled by the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  This has already made it impossible for Canada to meet its climate targets.  Keystone XL is a necessary element in the oil industry’s plan (approved by the Canadian government) to increase tar sands production from 1.5 million barrels a day in 2012 to 5.8 million barrels a day in 2030.  Industry has proposed a long-term goal of 9.4 million barrels per day of production.  It is incompatible for Canada to both pursue a massive expansion of its tar sands industry and also meet international climate commitments.  This is why it is impossible for Canada to mitigate of offset the impacts of Keystone XL.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is currently on track to meet its international climate targets and the Obama administration has recently committed to adopting new rules that would that would limits carbon emissions from the U.S. fleet of coal-fired power plants.  In late June, he said:

Today for the sake of our children and the health and safety of all Americans, I am directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. President Obama, June 2013

As the Canadian-based think tank the Pembina Institute said in an analysis of how the U.S. compared against Canada’s climate record, “If the U.S. is working to meet its commitments, how will they feel about their northern neighbour shirking its responsibility?”

Mitigation of tar sands emissions from Keystone XL is neither likely nor possible given the Canadian government’s current commitment to tar sands expansion.  In any case, it is unacceptable as a trade-off for approval of Keystone XL, which has many other envirnomental impacts and is not in Amercia's national interest.  Certainly, Canada should improve its climate record but they have an extremely long way to go to address its tar sands problems.   Its continued pursuit to expand its tar sands sector combined with its poor performance on climate makes mitigation impossible.  And that is yet another reason by the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline should be rejected.