A recent study by my friend, Nobel-recognized Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver, created a tornado of spin supporting tar sands expansion. It’s even drawn the enthusiasm of prominent climate skeptics, only too happy to cherry-pick the study and misrepresent its results.
All Weaver has done is state the obvious: there is far more coal buried around the world than oil in the sands of Alberta. That’s nothing new. He’s provided some calculations which show that burning all the world’s coal will cause far more global warming than burning all the Athabaskan bitumen.
But that doesn’t mean dirty tar sands oil is harmless. Far from it! Tar sands boosters put forward the puffery that we need to transition from dirty coal to cleaner oil. But our expansion of bitumen extraction isn’t in any way aimed at reducing coal burning, it’s meant to feed expanded consumption and production. It will be added to coal emissions, not subtracted from them. Coal extraction itself requires large amounts of diesel fuel and other oil products to power the digging machinery, transport trucks, trains, and ships. They are all part of an interlinked system dependent on fossil fuels of all types. One also can’t overlook that cleaner natural gas is used to produce dirtier tar sands oil used to transport dirtiest coal to wherever it is burnt.
And none of this considers the major effects on air and water quality, and massive deforestation, another global warming driver.
The International Energy Agency reports that to avoid unacceptable warming, we must not build any new fossil fuel infrastructure. That means no new coal plants, no new pipelines, and no expansion of the tar sands. That tar sands are just a fraction of global carbon reserves doesn’t let them off the hook. Treating their warming effect of .4 °C as too small for concern is the classic fallacy of composition, when you say “my part is small, it doesn’t matter in the big picture.” But when that argument is used by every participant and you add them together, the total is huge.
It’s like saying “it doesn’t matter if I pee in your pool, my pee is only a tiny percent of the water”. True, but if all swimmers take that attitude, pretty soon you have more pee than pool! Each of us will only ever play a small part, but unless most of us do our part, the problem will only worsen. As the Lorax warns, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The solution? Immediately begin shifting our investment to clean, renewable energy, while using conservation and efficiency to economically reduce our needs. More on that in future columns.
Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published as "Oil-sands emissions no different from coal"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.