Alberta’s carbon footprint, spurred on by the tar sands industry, has been steadily growing in recent years. So when the New Democratic Party took power in a surprise victory earlier this year, environmentalists hoped it signaled a turning point for Canada’s largest oil-producing province.
On Sunday, new Alberta Premier Rachel Notely lived up to those expectations. Notely announced new pledges to limit fossil fuels in the province, by phasing out all coal power usage by 2030, imposing a carbon tax beginning in 2017, and placing a limit on carbon pollution from the tar sands industry.
“This is the day we stop denying there is an issue, and this is the day when we start doing our part,” Notley said. “Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity.”
The announcement comes after months of statements by high-ranking government officials within Alberta signaling a change in the province’s approach to carbon emissions and climate change. In June, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips promised a “new era of responsible energy development and environmental sustainability,” suggesting that the province could as much as double its carbon tax by 2017. In September, Notley also told the Guardian that the province would look to diversify its energy portfolio in the coming years, steering away from fossil fuels and towards more renewable energy sources.
In the Guardian interview, Notley emphasized greater interest in regulating the tar sands industry’s carbon emissions rather than shutting it down altogether. But the industry itself has been battered in recent months by a slew of government rejections — from Keystone XL to oil tanker traffic in British Columbia — and thousands of lost jobs due to the falling price of oil.
Alberta’s new climate plan seeks to limit future tar sands production in the province, setting an annual limit for carbon pollution from the tar sands at 100 megatons. Currently, the industry generates about 70 megatons of carbon a year.
“Six million barrels of tar sands per day are currently permitted, but under this plan and under existing technology, half of that — three million barrels per day that would have burned — will now stay in the ground,” Karen Mahon, director of ForestEthics Canada, told the National Observer. “This a game changer for Alberta and Canada.”
The new plan also seeks to bolster Alberta’s renewable energy sector — currently, just 9 percent of the province’s electricity comes from renewable resources such as solar and wind. The province will completely phase out coal power by 2030, and place a $20 per ton tax on carbon emissions beginning in 2017, which will increase to $30 per ton in January of 2018. According to government estimates, the carbon tax will bring in some $2.5 billion a year, which will be reinvested in renewable energy and efficiency programs to help offset price increases for consumers.
“Our goal is to become one of the world’s most progressive and forward-looking energy producers,” Notley said. “We are turning the page on the mistaken policies of the past, policies that have failed to provide the leadership our province needed.”
Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of the environmental-advocacy group Oil Change International, said that Notley’s announcement signaled a “new day for Alberta.”
“The sun is setting on the tar sands industry,” Kretzmann said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “It is now possible to see a new day for Alberta where high-cost, high-carbon, high-risk tar sands are phased out in favor of clean, safe, and renewable energy. The idea that tar sands growth is inevitable has left the building.”
The plan was also met with cautious approval by several of Canada’s largest oil companies, which praised both the plan’s rejection of coal power and the industry’s allowed increase from 70 megatons of carbon to 100 megatons.
Notley will present her plan to Canada’s new prime minister Justin Trudeau during an upcoming meeting of Canada’s premiers in advance of the U.N. climate talks in Paris.