Good news for the oil sands? Think again

A new article in the science journal “Nature” is causing quite a media stir this week. Co-authored by one of Canada’s top climate scientists, Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, the report calculates the climate impact of developing Canada’s oil sands (or tar sands). The media’s take on the punch line of the report is that developing the oil sands in their entirety has less of an impact on the planet than burning all the world’s our vast coal reserves, or all the world’s natural gas. This, the headlines trumpet, is good news for the oil sands. In reality, it isn’t – more on that below.

Aerial view of McClelland lake fen north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.  (c) Jiri Rezak / WWF-UK

Andrew Weaver will take heat for this analysis, no doubt, as it will be seen to give (and might well end up giving) cover to the oil sands industry. In reality, Dr. Weaver and his co-author Neil Swart are doing what good scientists do: provide solid, transparent analyses on important topics. For that, they deserves nothing but thanks. My worry – and the worry of many in my field – is less about the information provided but about how the information will be used. For instance, the Globe article already speculates it will be a hot topic of debate as Canada continues to fight the European Union’s proposed Fuel Quality Directive, which is designed to lower the carbon footprint of gasoline and diesel in the EU. So let’s take a moment to look beyond the spin at what this report means.
That burning all the planet’s coal and natural gas reserves should have a bigger climate impact than Canada’s oil sands is not actually shocking: we have truly vast stores of coal and natural gas all over the world. It’s also not really the point, as Dr. Weaver himself points out. The real problem is our addiction to fossil fuels. Here’s the rub. Currently, the world relies heavily on coal, oil and natural gas for our heating, electricity, and fuel. If we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, (as most nations, including Canada, have committed to), we must shift away from those energy sources to renewable sources with less greenhouse gas emissions (along with far greater efficiency and conservation). The best scientific estimates suggest we have to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 to have any real chance at avoiding serious climate change. This is a monumental task (though entirely possible – see WWF’s Energy Report).
The problem is, instead of shifting to sources of energy with lower ghg emissions, too often we are investing heavily in developing energy sources with higher ghg emissions, like oil sands and unconventional natural gas. This is why Canada comes under such scrutiny and criticism at international meetings. Instead of supporting the shift we need, our federal government is hell-bent on developing more oil sands as fast as humanly possible, and finding new markets for the stuff. And Canada is working hard to make sure no global agreement is reached that puts any constraints on the development or export of that resource. That’s why little old Canada gets singled out: it’s not just about our poor domestic performance, but how we are hampering others from doing anything meaningful as well.
Andrew Weaver knows this, of course, and is doing his best to make sure the point isn’t lost. For example, he points out that the sole act of producing the oil sands for use in Canada and the United States will take up three-quarters of North Americans’ per-capita carbon allowance if global warming is to be held at 2 degrees Celsius. He’s also argued that Canada should not be investing in infrastructure – specifically including the Enbridge Gateway pipeline – that locks us into using fossil fuels in the future. So rather than offering support for rapid oil sands development, in fact this report does the opposite. There is no question that to fight climate change we must reduce our global dependence on coal. But if all we do is replace our current use of coal and oil with unconventional sources like shale gas and oil sands, we’ve done worse than nothing. At the moment, that stands to be Canada’s foreign policy legacy. It doesn’t have to be.