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It's the Tar Sands, Stupid

Canada home to global warming's new ground zero.

Mitchell Anderson 4 Dec

Mitchell Anderson, a freelance writer living in Vancouver, writes frequently for The Tyee. His blog is found at:

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PM Harper: Bali ballyhoo.

You can't practice abstinence while running a brothel. Yet politicians of almost all stripes talk simultaneously about developing the Alberta oil sands while getting serous about reducing carbon emissions. Sound like a crock? It is.

Beyond arcane terms like "emissions trading" and "carbon credits," climate change is actually very simple: Every time we extract ancient carbon out of the ground and burn it we are making climate change worse. The more you burn, the worse it gets.

Bearing in mind that simple truth, how much extractable oil is in the Alberta oil sands? That is one area where industry and environmentalists agree. It's a lot -- about 175 billion barrels. That is second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Beyond this massive storehouse of ancient carbon, the additional problem with the oil sands is that is takes a colossal amount of energy to extract and refine the extremely low-grade tar deposits that cover more than 20 per cent of the Alberta landmass.

The oil sands are mostly rock and sand -- only 12 per cent is bitumen. This tar must then be upgraded at enormous energy cost to synthetic crude. That process consumes about 700 million cubic feet of natural gas each day -- enough to heat over 3.7 million Canadian homes. That massive waste of finite and comparatively clean natural gas is expected to triple in the next eight years.

Of course there is no point in creating synthetic crude oil unless you are eventually going to burn it -- that is what the oil business is all about. These "downstream" emissions are four times as great as the carbon released during oil sands production.

How Alberta will cook us

Doing the math a rather stark picture emerges. The average production and downstream emissions of Alberta synthetic crude add up to around 638 kg of carbon per barrel. Multiply that by the total extractable oil reserves and you get a rather large number.

When all the Alberta oil sands have been extracted, upgraded and burned, they will result in the release into the Earth's atmosphere of around 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

The planet's atmosphere is a finite system. It currently contains about 3000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide -- about 35 per cent above pre-industrial levels. If all the carbon from the development of the oil sands were released at once it would single handedly increase atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from the current level of 384 ppm to 400 ppm.

Some scientists believe that there is a one in five chance that a carbon level of 400 ppm this century would lead to catastrophic changes. In fact we are on track to reach that milestone by 2015. The oil sands alone would put us beyond that potential tipping point.

Of course, none of this cuts much ice with either politicians or the public. There is an oil boom going on in Alberta -- end of story. Even here in Canada, there seems to be almost no discussion about the eventual need to leave this dangerous substance in the ground.

Runaway mega-project

Consider this thought experiment: imagine the political likelihood of any government in Ottawa attempting to shut down of the oil sands. Recall what happened when Trudeau brought in the comparatively mild National Energy Program in the 1980s. Thirty-seven years later, Albertans have neither forgotten nor forgiven that perceived transgression into their sacrosanct industry.

Nor would the U.S. be indifferent if Canada presumed to leave our own oil reserves in the ground. In fact, George Bush committed in his 2006 state of the union address to end his country's addiction to Mideast oil. What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the shortfall was to be made up by Canadian oil from the oil sands -- now deemed to be a national security objective of the U.S. government.

That same week in January 2006, Stephen Harper helpfully committed Canada to a five-fold increase in oil sands production during secret meetings held in Houston, Texas, between U.S., Canadian and industry representatives immediately after he took office.

Then there is a small matter of money. While oil companies love to whine about their onerous taxes, the fact is that they are now making astronomical profits. The break-even production costs of the oil sands are about $28 a barrel. World oil prices are now close to $100 a barrel. Royalties to the government are as low as 1 per cent and a new regime will not come in until 2009. Not a bad gig.

Assuming the oil remains at only $100 a barrel for the next few decades (highly unlikely), oil companies can expect to reap more than $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the oil sands. The oil industry is already the largest industrial sector the world has ever seen -- worth more than $8 trillion in sales annually. That is almost five times larger than the next biggest industry: cars.

Bogging down Bali

Keep all that in mind when Stephen Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on. One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper's position as "a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens."

All this is a good example of how far political and public discourse has to go to deal meaningfully with this planetary emergency. Try to imagine some future reality where we collectively commit standing armies to known oil reserves -- not to facilitate their extraction -- but to ensure that it never is. That is what it might eventually take to prevent global catastrophe.

Given the pell mell development of the Alberta oil sands, we instead have a very good idea of how much and how fast the world's fossil fuel deposits will be extracted and burned -- all of it, and as fast as possible.

The chemistry of the atmosphere doesn't care what disingenuous political posturing happens this week in Bali. Climate change is very simple. The more you burn, the worse it gets. We ignore that simple truth at our peril.

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