The province still does not have a bulletproof system in place to monitor and police the system Alberta’s biggest industrial polluters use to reduce their carbon footprints.
On Tuesday, the auditor general’s office said the province’s progress in the past two years on clarifying its carbon-offset program has been unsatisfactory, because Alberta still doesn’t test the validity of the offsets that companies purchase as a trade-off for producing too much greenhouse gas.
Auditor General Merwan Saher said Tuesday Alberta’s top greenhouse gas emitters buy about $60 million in offsets each year. But with no standard for measuring how those offsets contribute to an overall reduction in carbon emissions, it is possible – though not certain – the province has overstated its success to date.
Saher called the issue a “big deal” in part because, “I think it would be a shame if Alberta’s offsets fell into disrespect or disrepute.”
Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund was designed in 2007 to target the province’s biggest greenhouse gas producers, who contribute about half of Alberta’s overall carbon emissions. Companies that exceed the regulated carbon cap of 100,000 tonnes per year are expected to pay into the fund at a rate of $15 per excess tonne.
Alternatively, they can trade with other companies that didn’t meet the cap, or buy offsets.
However, in 2009, the auditor general’s office found the province had few checks in place to ensure the offset system was working properly. Large industrial companies could buy into biofuel projects, for example, or contribute funding to farmers who till their fields less often.
But without a standard measure for how those offsets actually contribute to reduced carbon emissions, the validity of the system is questionable.
How Alberta performs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is important as international critics focus on the province’s oilsands development, often described as “dirty oil” for its high carbon output.
The environmental footprint left by the oilsands has been flagged by European and U.S. politicians as a deterrent to buying Alberta oil.
“We need to do better in this area. We know that we’ve got a good system, but when you develop a system like this, there’s issues that will arise,” Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen said.
The province is reviewing offset protocols, including clarifying measurements and verification with chartered accountants, engineers and the National Standards Council. McQueen said by next year the auditor general’s recommendations will be addressed.
“The concern for me is to make sure that we meet the targets” on emissions reduction, McQueen said.
“I think people always pay attention to Alberta with regards to the oilsands, but we have continuous improvement.”
While Alberta is one of few jurisdictions to put a price on excess carbon emissions, the Pembina Institute – a think-tank focused on sustainable energy development – notes the province still has “the biggest emissions problem in Canada.”
“Alberta continually over-promises and under-delivers on its environmental management,” said Simon Dyer, the institute’s oilsands policy director.
He said the auditor’s report not only shows that the offset program needs to be strengthened, but that Alberta’s overall environmental monitoring needs to be overhauled.
The auditor’s report also highlighted “fugitive emissions” from Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds as problematic, because there is no consistent approach to measuring what the ponds give off.