Canada’s eastern Rockies risk becoming a carbon bomb
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 Reporter, Canada's National Observer