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Canada says it can fight climate change and be major oil nation. Massive fires may force a reckoning

By SUMAN NAISHADHAM and VICTOR CAIVANO, Associated Press
Published: November 9, 2023, 8:39am

FORT MCMURRAY, Canada (AP) — During a May wildfire that scorched a vast swath of spruce and pine forest in northwestern Canada, Julia Cardinal lost a riverside cabin that was many things to her: retirement project, gift from from her husband, and somewhere to live by nature, as her family had done for generations.

“That was our dream home,” said Cardinal, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, as she scanned the cabin’s flattened, charred remains in September. “It’s like a displacement.”

Thousands of wildfires in Canada this year have incinerated an area larger than Florida, releasing into the atmosphere more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by Canada in a year. And some are still burning.

Home to dense forests, sweeping prairies and nearly a quarter of the planet’s wetlands, Canadian leaders, including liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have long insisted the country can exploit its natural resources while protecting biodiversity and leading the global fight against climate change. But the seemingly endless fire season, which created hazardous air in many U.S. states thousands of miles away, is putting a spotlight on two aspects of Canada that increasingly feel at odds: the country’s commitment to fighting climate change and its status as the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and fifth-largest gas producer — fuels that when used release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and intensifies the dry conditions for wildfires to swallow millions of acres.

“They’re portraying Canada as environmental,” said Jean L’Hommecourt, an environmental advocate belonging to the Fort McKay First Nation. “But the biggest source of the carbon is here.”

OIL FOCUS AND ADVOCACY

Canada is among roughly 100 nations that have pledged by midcentury to reach “zero emissions,” or take as much greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere as it contributes. At last year’s U.N. climate conference, known as COP27, it also joined other rich nations to promise more money for developing countries to fight climate change.

Yet to the same conference, Canada brought the second-largest delegation of fossil fuel executives of any country in the world, an analysis by The Associated Press found. Eleven executives from major Canadian oil, gas, and steel companies, including Enbridge and Parkland Corporation attended COP27 — where countries set climate priorities and timelines for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The only country to send a larger delegation of fossil fuel executives was Russia, AP found.

“We’re not there to drive an agenda, but we do have a perspective to offer,” said Pete Sheffield, chief sustainability officer at pipeline and natural gas giant Enbridge Inc., echoing what other Canadian energy executives told The AP about their attendance at COP27.

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One such perspective is that Canadian oil producers can keep extracting oil at current rates, and with the help of technology, clean up their own operations so the country can still hit its climate targets. But even if Canada’s oil producers manage to do so, their plans don’t consider the greenhouse gas emissions that result from when customers use their products to power cars, heat homes, take flights, and so forth.

OIL, FIRES AND SMOKE

In the western province of Alberta, where many ferocious wildfires burned, huge deposits of thick crude oil, mixed with tarry sand, sit beneath the forest and near the snaking Athabasca River. Extraction from this area, referred to as the “oil sands,” uses huge amounts of energy, making Canada’s oil — most of which is extracted here — some of the world’s dirtiest.

In Alberta, the industry’s mark on the landscape is profound: over an area larger than New York City, oil companies have carved chunks of earth into open-pit mines plunging hundreds of feet deep, created lake-sized chemical runoff pools and left otherworldly stacks of neon yellow sulfur byproduct. On the sides of roads in the oil sands, air cannons boom periodically to keep birds away from the vast toxic ponds and scarecrows dressed as oil workers float above them.

On a recent morning, dozens of oil workers boarded a charter plane in Calgary that would take them deep into Alberta’s wilderness where black bears, caribou, and moose roam. There, operators boarded buses to oil sands projects, where they would work 7-, 14- or 21-day shifts.

During other weeks, the fires in Alberta burned so close that oil companies had to temporarily shut down oil and gas production, and average Canadians couldn’t safely breathe the air. In September, smoke from wildfires in the neighboring provinces of British Columbia and the Northern Territories blanketed Fort McMurray, an Albertan city of 68,000 where community centers bear the names of oil companies. The skies were a hazy, rust color.

“This is to the point where you don’t even want to be outside,” said Brittnee McIsaac, a school teacher who often had to keep her students inside for recess because it was too dangerous to breathe the smoke-filled air.

McIsaac, whose husband works in the oil industry, said that the smoke this year, combined with a major wildfire in 2016, have made more people in town concerned about climate change, even if many residents get their paychecks from the nearby oil patch.

“It really takes a toll on the mental health; just how dreary it is every day,” she said of the smoke.

Still, Canadian producers have no plans to slow down. Since 2009, oil sands extraction has grown. Today, Canada produces about 4.9 million barrels of oil a day, with oil and gas contributing almost a third of the country’s emissions in 2021. Oil and gas make up about 5% of Canada’s GDP, while in Alberta, the heart of Canadian oil country, the sector accounts for about 21%.

Carmen Lee-Essington, vice president of Cenovus’ oil sands operations, said the company plans to extract all the oil below ground at their Sunrise plant. Cenovus estimates that could last until 2070. That is decades after when scientists warn that the world needs to have moved beyond fossil fuels and rely almost entirely on renewable forms of energy.

“When that time comes, we will abandon the facility here. We will decommission it, the metal and all the infrastructure that you see will be shipped off-site,” said Lee-Essington.

SUSTAINABLE FUTURE?

Part of Canada’s reasoning to produce so much oil and gas in the 21st century is that it’s a stable democracy with stricter environmental and human rights laws than other oil giants that the West has historically relied upon. Canada is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S., exporting an amount equal to 22% of U.S. consumption.

But climate scientists warn that current levels of oil and gas production will mean Canada won’t reach net zero emissions, never mind the additional contributions to climate change from wildfires along the way.

Scientists at Climate Action Tracker, a group that scrutinizes nations’ pledges to reduce emissions, label the country’s progress as “highly insufficient,” stressing that Canada needs to implement its climate policies much faster to reach its own targets. For the high-carbon energy sector, much of the plan rests on the build-out of carbon capture, a technology that pulls in carbon dioxide, either at the source of emissions or from the air. But carbon capture is energy intensive, expensive and years away from operating at scale.

“There’s no way Canada can reach our 2050 target if oil and gas doesn’t do its fair share,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change.

The wildfires, which scientists say will burn more and longer as the planet warms, will add to the challenge of cutting emissions. They also pose significant health risks to Canadians and anyone who comes in contact with the smoke.

In June, a fire got close to the subarctic, mostly indigenous hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, in northern Alberta. A former fur trading settlement, it abuts one of the world’s largest inland deltas. In warmer months, the village can only be reached by boat or plane, since the main road into town is made of ice that melts in the spring. When the wildfires approached, residents first tried fleeing by boat, only to realize that water levels at the massive Athabasca Lake had gotten so low, they couldn’t leave. Soon after, the Canadian military sent its aircraft to evacuate people to Fort McMurray, where hundreds of people stayed for weeks.

In the blaze, Julia Cardinal and her husband Happy Cardinal would lose their cabin, which was about a 45-minute boat ride from Fort Chipewyan. Several months later, the trauma of the fire is still vivid.

“That was our home,” said Julia Cardinal, as she walked over the burned cabin, identifying the pots, pans and nails that survived the blaze. “There are some things we will never, ever replace.”

Still, the couple’s feelings are complicated. While they understand the role of climate change in the fires, and the impact of oil on the climate and lakes and rivers surrounding them, they are not quick to blame the industry. Happy Cardinal was an oil sands worker until retiring three years ago.

“That’s where my money comes from,” he said.

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