Oil sands, carbon emmissions, global warming, floods, Alberta – ya think?

By Ray Rivers

BURLINGTON, ON. July 6, 2013.   We are all Albertans in this time of their crisis.   Some called it a thousand-year flood but  it’s enough to say it was unprecedented.  And if you are looking for the blame game, there is lots to go around – building houses in a flood plain, failure to implement a flood management plan, timely reaction to weird weather and, of course, global climate change.  Researchers  with the US Department of Agriculture, half a decade ago, predicted the onset of extreme rainfall events for prairie grasslands.  Isn’t that exactly what we just witnessed in Alberta?  

 By now you’d think that every informed person would understand the relationship between greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change.  According to Canada’s latest emissions inventory  Alberta generates over a third of the country’s emissions, up by a half since 1990, and far more than any other province.  As an aside, Ontario’s emissions have fallen over that period thanks, in part, to Dalton McGuinty’s energy plan.

 Canada accounts for only a small percentage of global GHG emissions, though we are among the biggest culprits given our population.  Once upon a time Canada supported the Kyoto protocol, the international treaty on emission reductions. We had committed to reduce our emissions by 6% but were failing miserably.  When our emissions sky-rocketed by 19% Mr. Harper finally pulled the plug.  Why make promises you have no intention of keeping?

 Most of Canada’s GHG emissions come from fossil fuels and the second largest source is oil and gas production, which is spiraling upwards as Alberta develops its tar sands.  According to James Hansen, one of the most credible climate change scientists on the planet, there is twice as much carbon in the tar sands as in conventional oil.  It’s like burning a second barrel of oil just to get the first one.

 The tar sands reserves are huge, but remote and thus barely developed, since the bitumen needs to get to a market.  Building the Keystone XL pipeline to refineries in Texas would solve that problem and add a million barrels of production a day.  So, Hansen is a fierce critic of the pipeline.  He believes that the building the pipeline would be “game over” for the environment and has urged US President Obama not to approve it for that reason.  Obama has expressed his concerns about climate change but the betting is split on whether he’ll approve it or not.

 The PM, like me, was trained as an economist.  However, I suspect he missed the lecture on externalities – the law of unintended consequences, a concept that goes back to Adam Smith.  The toxic slag heaps, the poisoned and dying wildlife, and the warming of the planet are all unintended consequences of developing the tar sands.  The profits from the tar sands go to the oil companies but the unintended consequences fall on the rest of us.

 Mr. Harper has spent over a billion new dollars on the military since he came to office, yet on this topic, he turns a deaf ear and a blind eye.  Back in 2010 he was warned by senior officers  that “Climate change has the potential to be a global threat of unparalleled magnitude and requires early, aggressive action in order to overcome its effects.” But Stephen Harper has been a climate change denier and out of touch with this reality.  And in a vulnerable northern nation, like Canada, that is scary.

 Climate change is global,  The consequences could happen anywhere but the stars aligned to make it Alberta this summer.  Albertans are like most other Canadians and care about the risks we take with the environment and the legacy we leave our children.  But Mr. Harper is a transplanted Albertan, maybe that accounts for his attitude, beliefs and prejudices.  So don’t expect the PM to move proactively on an environmental issue he doesn’t believe in.  Rather, Canada will have to wait for the US – for Mr. Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline – before it get’s worse.

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat after which he decided to write and has become a  political animator. Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province.

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8 comments to Oil sands, carbon emmissions, global warming, floods, Alberta – ya think?

  • Zaffi

    I liked your article Mr. Rivers.
    I found your tone to be simply factual and informative.
    However the tone in some of the previous comments are pretty harsh.

  • Navigator

    “Smidgeon” really sums it up. Pre-Harper, I am wondering what steps were taken. I recall we signed on to Kyoto and then realized what it meant and so did nothing of any consequence. Honesty versus hypocrisy, the age old political tussle, and most people prefer hypocrisy it seems.

  • Chris Ariens

    A lot of “shoot the messenger” here regarding James Hansen, who has a smidgen more credibility when it comes to climate science then do John Lawrence Reynolds or “Navigator”. It’s hard though to disagree with the science. It does take considerably more energy and thus more co2 to boil oil out of sand then it does to extract it from a conventional well. The article rightly calls into question Harper’s record when it comes to climate change, which is that he has changed Canada from a country that was at least seen as willing to take relatively modest steps towards reducing emissions to one that is actively working to block global co-operation on the issues and leaving its children and their children to suffer the consequences – both environmental and financial.

    • James Hansen indeed has more credibility in scientific matters than me. That’s not the point. His credibility when dealing with facts is at least as important. And BTW – I’m no fan of Stephen Harper on almost any subject, especially his position on international agreements this country previously signed. But neither am I a fan of people who trumpet simple solutions to a complex global problem. Should we take steps to deal with global warming? Definitely. Will the world end its reliance on fossil fuels today? Next month? Next year? Next generation? Not bloody likely.

  • Navigator

    I was going to comment extensively on this, but after reading the response of John Lawrence Reynolds all I can really say is “Amen”. The writer would do better to concentrate on facts, applying reasoning to the same in the interests of intellectual analysis and supportable conclusions rather than repeatedly scribbling undiguised anti-Harper screeds in every column. Appeals to authority, especially when it is Saint James Hansen is especially egregious.

  • Is the writer suggesting that Albertans in part deserved the flood damage caused by the overflowing Bow and Elbow rivers, due to that province’s contribution to growing CO2 levels on a global basis? He will, I suspect, dispute that reading, but it is difficult to ignore.

    Whatever his intentions, it would help if he first investigated rather more deeply the sources of his point of view, and next considered the wider picture.

    He quotes James Hansen, a man who has been widely discredited by those who draw attention to global warming on the basis of, among other things, Hansen’s intention to place US President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under citizen’s arrest should they approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. On a more specific note, Hansen’s claim that the oil sands, if developed, would release 400 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere was used to support his claim that the oil sands represent “game over” for the climate, which is preposterous. First, the entire oil sands operation represents 5 percent of Canada’s total carbon emissions. In contrast, fossil-fuel electricity generation represents 16 percent of emissions and transportation adds another 27 percent. Canada as a whole produces 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. Thus, shutting down the oil sands entirely would reduce the level of 5 percent of 2 percent, or 0.25 percent. Good luck saving the planet with those figures.

    As for the release of the 400 gigatonnes of carbon from the oil sands deposits, Hansen assumes they would be released instantaneously, like air from a balloon. Ridiculous. Even at current production levels, it would take almost 300 years to recover, refine and process all the deposits. This is not going to happen because the globe is already moving away from fossil fuels, but it will not happen overnight.

    It will certainly not happen while a billion or so residents on the planet, residing in India, China and elsewhere, are determined to move into the middle class of the industrial-based economy. Will they be denied motor vehicles, air conditioning and other comforts of (currently) petroleum-based energy? Not likely. Will the world move off petroleum-based energy overnight? In two years? In five years? Even less likely. Most estimates suggest a 25-to-30 year time frame. If that’s the case, be prepared for forests of wind turbines, acres of solar generators and volumes of nuclear reactors.

    As for environmental impact of petroleum plants in the oil sands sector, it’s not pretty. Neither are belching steel plants and sprawling automotive lines. But I have toured the oil sands operations and researched the claims against them. Tailings ponds are being restored (and eliminated) and the wilder claims by highly credible scientific experts (sic) such as movie star Darryl Hannah have been disproved. Check the Royal Society of Canada’s 2010 report Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry for facts with much less fancy.

    If the oil sands is shut down tomorrow, the two major impacts would be the loss of several billion dollars’ of income for Canada, linked to the loss of many thousands of jobs; and a spike in oil prices while governments around the world scurry to make up the shortfall. That’s it.

    I am not belittling the question of global warming and its potential long-term impact. But too many observers take the position of movie maven James Cameron after he “toured” (an hour-long helicopter flight, for the most part), the oil sands site. When asked his opinion of the oil sands and global warming generally, this man who flew from California to Ft. McMurray and back on his private jet… who owns three homes, including a 24,00-square-foot mansion in Malibu plus a forty hectare ranch in Santa Barbara… who travels in a JetRanger helicopter, a Humvee fire truck, a yacht and a fleet of other vehicles plus his private jet… replied, “We’re going to have to live with less.”

    Yeah, right. You first, James.

    John Lawrence Reynolds

    • James Smith

      So, um, fouling more water, causing more down-wind cancers, killing more wildlife while burning more natural gas to boil tar from one of the largest open pit mine operations on the planet is a good idea?
      Just so I’m clear.

      • Mr. Smith: Just so you are clear. Fouled water, cancer and other aspects of your note are not a good idea. Never said it was. Never would. But shutting down the oil sands immediately will have little or no impact on the global situation. The oil will be purchased from other sources with other means. Oil shipped from the Persian Gulf will travel on vessels spewing CO2 into the air. We need to move away from fossil fuels. But it will not be achieved by throwing a switch.
        Here’s a suggestion: Read SUN RISE by Rick George, former CEO of Suncor Energy. Guess what? He agrees with the concept of moving from fossil fuels. He happens to believe that it won’t happen by snapping one’s fingers.