Oil Change International

Exposing the true costs of fossil fuels

Tar Sands: “No get-out-of-jail-free card”

If you read some of the Canadian press coverage, a recent scientific study has offered the pro-tar sands movement a real fillip in its attempts to spin its dirty fuel as “ethical oil” that is no dirtier than conventional crude.

The Canadians are now essentially arguing it gives them the scientific back-up to carry on drilling. The headlines are all positive:  “Canada’s oil sands: Not so dirty after all“; “Oilsands as ‘carbon bomb’ debunked”; “Oil sands proponents get a PR boost”.

The Calgary Sun ploughs in “When it comes to the world’s perception of the oilsands, the truth can be elusive. Enviro-extremists paint the massive energy reserves as the greatest global warming threat to the planet. That wild-eyed claim should be laid to rest now that one of the world’s leading climate scientists has calculated that the most serious threat lies in burning coal.”

The leading climate scientist concerned is Andrew Weaver, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, and who was a lead author with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Over the weekend, Weaver and his doctoral student, Neil Swart, published an analysis in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, an offshoot of Nature, the world’s most prestigious science journal, about several analyses of the global warming potential of various fossil fuels.

They calculated that burning the world’s vast coal reserves would raise temperatures 15 degrees, while burning the newly found reserves of shale gas would increase temperatures of just under 3 degrees.

In comparison, they argue that if all the 1.8 trillion reserves of the tar sands were exploited – which is not going to technically happen anyway- it would raise global temperatures by one-third of a degree.

The more likely scenario is that if you burnt the 170 billion barrels of tar sands that the industry currently considers economic to produce, the warming is 0.02 to 0.05 degrees Celsius.

So – hold the front page – the vast reserves of coal are dirtier than oil. Nothing new there. We already knew that coal is dirtier than oil and that the vast reserves of coal should not be burnt.

What the Canadian press and industry have forgotten as they clutch at straws is that the tar sands has never has been a coal versus oil argument.

The tar sands is an oil versus oil argument. And in that debate, the overwhelming majority of studies independent of the oil industry show that the tar sands are more polluting. More importantly, it is an argument about disinvesting out of dirty oil and beginning the transition to a clean energy future that avoids dangerous climate change.

Even Weaver argues that “We’re not giving a get-out-of-jail-free card to the tar-sands industry. This is not the purpose of our study.”

Some sections of the Canadian press quietly admit this. “Yet what’s also clear is that Dr. Weaver’s work does little to absolve an industry that continues to be Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions,” concedes the Globe and Mail.

Indeed Weaver argues that “If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels.”

That reads to me like a recommendation of No Keystone XL, No Northern Gateway and a rapid transition away from the tar sands.

Funny that is not how it is being spun in Canada is it? No surprises there.

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