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Climate Activists Say Keystone XL Was Just the Beginning

There's a new wave of campaigns calling for fossil fuels to be left in the ground, just as world leaders head to Paris to discuss how to get a grip on a warming planet.

by Ashley Renders
Nov 27 2015, 3:35pm

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

With the Keystone XL pipeline out of the way, climate activists are taking their advocacy against carbon emissions to the source.

That means a new wave of campaigns calling for fossil fuels to be left in the ground, just as world leaders head to Paris to discuss how to get a grip on a warming planet.

"The Keystone XL pipeline was the test case," said Cameron Fenton, Canadian Tar Sands Organizer with 350.org, who says the keep it in the ground movement is "scaling up on a whole new level."

Research published by the journal Nature at the beginning of this year shows that about 80 percent of global fossil fuels reserves must be left in the ground in order to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. That's the threshold scientists have set to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

In Canada, that means only 7.5 billion barrels can be produced from the oil sands by 2050, according to the study. That's 15 percent of reserves and about one percent of total bitumen.

The study also shows that the the US will have to leave over 90 percent of its coal in the ground, as well as some of its oil and gas reserves.

The forecast led a number of America senators, including Bernie Sanders, to introduce the Keep It In The Ground Act, which would ban all new fossil fuel development on public lands and cancel non-producing leases.

The reality that most of the world's fossil fuels will have to be left in the ground has been neglected, said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who authored the bill. Now, it's set to become "a major international movement," he predicted.

Related: These Oil and Gas Companies Say It's Time to Address Climate Change

Investors are already aware of the possibility that fossil fuel projects won't have a future, said Mark Campanale, the founder and executive director of Carbon Tracker.

Campanale's organization released a report on Tuesday showing that fossil fuel companies could waste as much as $2 trillion dollars on coal, oil and gas projects that won't be needed in the future if the resources are indeed untouched.

"Every single investor is now aware of these risks," said Campanale. "If you're a fund manager and you run an energy portfolio, you think about this every day," he said.

The study published in Nature says Canada will also have to leave some of its conventional oil, natural gas, and almost all of its coal untouched to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.

But the issue has barely been discussed by leading political parties in Canada, with only the tiny Green Party officially talking about it on a federal level in Canada. During the summer election campaign, when Linda McQuaig, a candidate for the left wing New Democratic Party, commented that "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground" she was met with fierce criticism. Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper called it part of a "not-so-hidden agenda on development" that would "wreck" the Canadian economy, and even the NDP said her comments did not reflect their official policy. Justin Trudeau, who is now prime minister, said both views exposed the "extreme positions" held by his opponents.

Meanwhile, Canada's federal and provincial governments are rolling out their much awaited climate commitments.

The premier of Alberta, which is home to Canada's oil sands, announced plans on Sunday to introduce a carbon tax, phase out coal and cap oil sands emissions — a move Trudeau praised as "a strong positive step in the right direction."

The plan will tax residents for their emissions, while capping oil sands emissions at 100 megatons of carbon per year. The oil sands currently generates 70 megatons per year, and is expected to hit 100 megatons in 2030.

Ontario is planning to introduce a cap and trade system similar to the one Quebec put into place almost three years ago. And on Monday, the Ontario government passed a law that banned the burning of coal for electricity. British Columbia has been taxing carbon emissions for over seven years while Saskatchewan is holding out on a carbon tax, saying "now is not the time to impose another tax on the business community."

Related: Justin Trudeau Subjects Canada's Premiers to a Science Class Before Paris Climate Summit

Regardless, climate activists say these plans won't do enough to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.

"It's 2015, the measure of climate leadership is no longer setting a target for how much carbon you'll put in the air but legislating based on science and keeping fossil fuels in the ground," said Fenton in a statement about Alberta's climate plan.

When asked by email how it responds to research that says much of Canada's fossil fuels must be left in the ground, Environment Canada said it "will be informed by what the science is telling us, and specifically the scientific evidence that global temperature increases must be limited to at most two degrees Celsius."

Senator Merkley said he doesn't expect the Keep It In The Ground Act to pass in the United States. But he said he hopes it will eventually encourage other governments to adopt similar legislation.

The US has already blocked new oil drilling projects in the Arctic and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have "turned on the tap to some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet," he said. "That leadership will help create movements in the balance of the world," he said.

Follow Ashley Renders on Twitter: @iamrenders

Image via Flickr user Rainforest Action Network