Beginning of the End for Canada’s Tar Sands or Just a Blip?


Alberta has announced an oil production cut, citing tight pipeline capacity. It’s an effort to buy time for the industry, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problems.

When hundreds of activists protesting the Keystone XL pipeline were arrested at the White House in 2011, their ultimate target lay thousands of miles away: Canada’s tar sands. If they stopped the pipeline, they argued, that could slow the growth of this particularly dirty source of oil and score a limited but significant win for the climate.

This week, with the market saturated and prices depressed, Alberta’s premier announced that her government would temporarily curtail the province’s oil production, chiefly from the tar sands, because there isn’t enough pipeline capacity to ship the crude to market.

It was a startling announcement from a government whose prevailing energy policy has been to promote more production of its bitumen—known as tar sands or oil sands—which ranks among the most carbon-polluting sources of oil.

“This is definitely a big deal,” said Josh Axelrod of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the advocacy groups that has tried to block Keystone XL. “When the aim of the campaign is to level off production,” he said, “to see that day when the first cuts happen for exactly the reason you have argued would happen, it’s quite amazing.”

The reasons for Alberta’s decision to rein in production are complex—the government’s goal is for output to eventually grow again.

It’s an effort to buy time for the industry, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problems. And it raises the question: is this the beginning of the end for Canada’s oil sands?

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