Oil, gas and coal extraction projects located in Canadian protected areas could unleash a potential 2.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a global analysis found.

Alberta’s iconic coal-bearing Rocky Mountains are among the nearly 800 protected areas under threat of fossil fuel development worldwide, according to the analysis by LINGO, a.k.a. the Leave It In the Ground Initiative. The Germany-based non-profit’s stated mission is to “leave fossil fuels in the ground and learn to live without them,” and accelerate the world’s transformation to 100 per cent renewable energy. The research was done in collaboration with Oil Change International.

Released May 10, the analysis maps fossil fuel activities within the world’s protected areas and quantifies the risks these oil, gas and coal projects pose. Extracting and burning those fossil fuels could release more than 47 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is more than the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, which totalled more than 37 billion tonnes in 2021.

The analysis identified Willmore Wilderness Park, located in the eastern Rockies near Jasper National Park in Alberta, as one of the areas with the highest potential emissions, along with protected areas in China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the U.S., Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan. Canada’s National Parks Act prohibits mining, for example, in Jasper National Park, but Willmore is protected under its own act. While that law prohibits industrial development, it also allows the park boundaries to be increased or decreased at the discretion of the lieutenant-governor in council, and in the past, the boundaries have been reduced to allow for development, according to the Alberta Wilderness Association.

A coal extraction project in this region has the potential to release nearly 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and another 1.3 billion tonnes could come from oil and gas activities in protected areas, according to the analysis.

Coal mining in the eastern Rockies has been a hot topic since 2020 when Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party cancelled environmental protections from 1976 that impeded the development of open-pit coal mines in the province. The public outcry was swift, and the UCP ultimately backpedalled and reinstated the policy. However, four projects that began the approval process before protections were reinstated could still proceed.

The report’s authors point out that fossil fuel extraction activities don’t have to be happening inside a protected area to pose a threat: for example, oil spills have “polluting consequences that travel many kilometres.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading

This is the downfall of democracy that in turning our collective well-being over to the capriciousness of elections/popularity contests of the moment and a solid contingent of low-information voters with NO plans to change that, we still have to worry about the UCP remaining in charge DESPITE a majority of outraged Albertans having to force them to repeal their ridiculously irrresponsible coal policy, AND the fact that they don't even have a climate plan anyway because they're stupid science denialists, AND the undeniable fact that their leader is a kamikaze idiot, etc. etc.

It's one thing to map known coal reserves, it's quite another to develop, mine, process and ship coal to markets. Political will is a very influential factor, but then again, basic economics are often more powerful and quietly insidious.

Thermal coal has no place in Canada, whether mined and burnt here to produce electricity, mined here and shipped elsewhere, or mined and shipped elsewhere using Canadian ports, as is currently happening with Wyoming coal shipped through the Port of Vancouver with the blessing of the federal Liberals and BC NDP. Jobs matter to politicos, even if they are few and far between. Political donations matter even more.

Metallurgical coal is mined here and shipped elsewhere, and the resulting steel products are shipped right back for our domestic use. This economic model from the colonial 19th Century persists. So does an utter lack of political spine, imagination or principles that place the common good over corporate interests. That may sound cliché, but it rings true.

The answer is simple. Make steel at home using low emission electricity. Electric arc furnaces and electrolysis have been around for decades. Ironically, the most advanced batteries are produced in China where our steelmaking coal ends up.

Large off shore wind farms can produce hundreds of megawatts of electricity every 24 hours, and battery packs with storage capacity for hundreds (if not thousands) of MW are being built today in Europe, Australia and China. The battery chemistry has improved dramatically with a long-term commitment to proper R&D (pay attention, Justin) and we now see the problematic L-NMC (lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt) formulation displaced or outright replaced by LFP (lithium iron phosphate) with good energy density and less risk of dendrite-related fires. Today, sodium is coming on stream, and when coupled with lithium you have excellent cold weather performance and great energy density ratings of 200 watts per kg of battery. In the last few weeks CATL and BYD batteries from China released hybrid "structured" batteries (spaces that manage heating and cooling) that top 250 watts / kg and are lighter in weight, which resulted in Chinese automaker SAIC releasing a concept car with a range of nearly 1,000 km on a single charge.

When taken together, wind, solar, batteries and EVs will likely quickly become a very powerful threat to the fossil fuel industry by acting as cheaper direct replacements in electricity generation and low emission mobility. They are now so affordable that there doesn't seem to be any viable competition from gas, oil and coal. The threat could develop into an economic force of its own and override politicians who love carbon-saturated campaign donations. Demand will accrete to renewables and cleaner goods and things like brand new gasoline burning cars could be abandoned by the public en masse in favour of price-parity EVs made with green steel.

If pro-oil prognosticators rail against EVs and renewables and call them products of magical thinking, then price alone will counter that narrative and questions will no doubt be asked like, Why didn't you see this coming? That is a good question to ask even today just before the storm hits.