The Alberta government and the province's natural resource industries boast they're leading the country in becoming more energy efficient and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But with the Kyoto accord set to become a binding international treaty on Feb. 16, environmental groups argue that Alberta still has a long way to go before it can claim to be a national leader on climate change.
"We think we're leading the country in terms having a (climate change) plan and taking action on it," says Robert Moyles, a spokesman for Alberta Environment.
Pierre Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), says regardless of what happens with Kyoto, the oil and gas industry "will continue to press for improvement year over year because it's the right thing to do and, secondly, it's good business in many cases."
The electricity-generation industry in Alberta is also making steady progress on improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions, says David Lewin, senior vice-president of sustainable development at Edmonton-based Epcor Inc.
Even if Kyoto falls apart after 2012 (as some observers predict, unless big emitters such as the U.S. and China sign on), "we will continue to make improvements and make progress over time," Lewin says.
Keith Murphy, director of environmental affairs with the Alberta Forest Products Association, says the forest sector is on a similar improvement path.
As an example, Murphy points to a new $61-million cogeneration plant now undergoing field tests next to Canadian Forest Products Ltd.'s sawmill at Grande Prairie.
Built by Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., a Calgary-based renewable energy developer, the new EcoPower Centre produces both heat for Canfor's lumber-drying kilns and 25 megawatts of electricity, considered to be "green" power under Kyoto.
When it comes to reducing greenhouse gases, "compared with other sectors, I think we're equally as good or better," Murphy says.
Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Alberta-based Pembina Institute environmental group, acknowledges that some companies in the province, such as BP Canada Energy Co. and Shell Canada Ltd., are leaders in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But he argues that there's no way the Alberta government - despite being the only province to have a climate change plan backed by legislation - can claim to be in front.
Under Alberta's plan, the province's total greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by 22-37 per cent by 2020, compared with the 1990 levels used as a baseline in the Kyoto treaty, Bramley says.
Alberta's plan is based on cutting the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from producing each barrel of oil, megawatt of electricity or other unit of energy or product.
"But when you look at what it means for absolute emissions, it means absolute emissions remaining well above the 1990 level - indefinitely, in fact," Bramley says.
Alberta Environment's Moyles defends the plan's approach as being both economically and environmentally sound. He says the plan will include specific emission-reduction targets for each large industrial sector in Alberta.
But Bramley says that the government has yet to set any of those targets, which he notes will be voluntary rather than mandatory.
The Alberta government expects its plan will reduce emissions by about 20 million tonnes, or from a projected 258 megatonnes (Mt) down to 238 Mt by 2010, compared with "business-as-usual" where no action is taken.
But, says Bramley: "I haven't seen any evidence that voluntary measures can get them anywhere close to that."
Moyles says Alberta is the only province in Canada that has committed, by the end of this year, to buy 90 per cent of the power for provincial government buildings from green energy sources. Half of that power will come from Canadian Hydro's new cogeneration plant at Grande Prairie and the other half from Enmax Energy Corp., from wind power generated in southern Alberta.
Bramley, however, argues that purchasing green power only for government buildings is "a drop in the ocean" compared to what other provinces are doing.
Ontario, for example, has committed to buying 300 megawatts (MW) of green power and says it will go up to 2,700 MW. The Quebec government has purchased 1,000 MW of wind power and plans to buy another 1,000 MW.
"Alberta doesn't have a strategy on green power, as far as I can see," Bramley says. "It's really a hole in Alberta's (climate change) plan."
But John Keating, CEO of Canadian Hydro, says Alberta, by deregulating its electricity market, has encouraged more renewable energy development which in turn leads to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Alberta's wind-power industry currently has the most installed wind-generation capacity in the country, although Quebec and possibly Ontario will vault ahead with their recently announced wind farms, Keating says. "I think Alberta is doing pretty well. I would say it's a leader in Canada."
CAPP's Alvarez points out that the petroleum industry has voluntarily cut oilfield flaring emissions across Alberta by at least 70 per cent compared with 1990 levels. Venting emissions, from gas that isn't burned, are down 24 per cent.
Oilsands operators continue to reduce their emissions for every barrel of synthetic oil they produce, Alvarez says. "Each (new project) on a per-unit basis is a quantum leap over the next one."
Alberta firms, including EnCana Corp., Anadarko Canada Corp., Apache Canada Ltd., Penn West Petroleum Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc., are pioneering technology to capture carbon dioxide and use it to recover more oil while permanently storing the greenhouse gas underground.
"I would argue that industry has been way more efficient in moving toward reduced energy use than the individual consumer has," Alvarez says.
Bramley counters that Alberta's upstream oil and gas industry has a responsibility to do more, because the industry by itself emits about 16 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions.
"That's more than all the private vehicles in Canada," Bramley notes.
In Alberta's forest sector, Murray says that the industry has permanently shut down and eliminated emissions from seven wastewood burners in the province during the last five years.
Instead, bark and sawdust that used to be burned in dangerous incinerators are being used as green fuel - considered environmentally friendly under the Kyoto treaty - in clean-burning cogeneration plants.
"A lot of the (wood waste) fibre is going to produce 'green' electricity, and it's displacing the electricity that's produced by coal," Murray says.
At the same time, coal- fired power plants in Alberta are cleaning up their act.
Lewin says Epcor spent an additional $90 million on advanced coal combustion- and pollution-control technologies for its new Genesee 3 power plant, now undergoing field tests about 60 kilometres west of Edmonton.
The plant will emit about 18 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than older coal-fired generators in the province, as well as significantly lower emissions of air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and harmful particulate matter.
Epcor's operating licence for Genesee 3 also requires the company to further reduce the plant's greenhouse gas emissions to the level of that emitted by the most advanced natural gas-fired power plant, Lewin says. "I expect it will set a standard for any future (coal-fired) units in the province."
"There's no doubt that all industries are moving into this carbon-constrained world, whether we like it or not and whether we agree on impacts on climate or not," Lewin says.
(Mark Lowey can be reached at email@example.com)