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Study: The Alberta Oil Sands and Climate


A pair of Canadian climate scientists have published a paper title “The Alberta Oil Sands and Climate”.  The goal of the paper is to calculate the amount of warming that would be caused by the burning of the oil in the Tar Sands and to compare that to the effects of burning of fossil fuels.  The results are quite scary.  But, unfortunately, they are also easily “spun” to make an argument for the Alberta Tar Sands.

Now, before talking about the paper, a little background is important.  Today, the average global temperature is about 1 degree Celsius higher than pre industrial times.  We know that the majority of that warming is man-made and mostly the result of carbon dioxide emissions.  The global consensus among scientists and accepted among policy makers is that we have to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.  So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that we can “afford” one degree of warming.  But less would be better.

Alright.  So what does the paper say?  Well, according to Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver, the paper’s authors, burning all of the Alberta Tar Sands’ current “economically viable proven reserves” of 170 billion barrels would cause the global temperature to increase by 0,03 degrees Celsius.  Not bad right?

Wrong.  First of all, 0,03 degrees is only from burning the “economically viable proven reserves”.  It does not include the emissions from extracting or refining, two processes which are extremely energy intensive due to the nature of the Tar Sands.  When you include those emissions, the warming increases 17% to 0,04 degrees.

The second problem is the “economically viable proven reserves” statement.  Right now, it makes economic sense for oil companies to extract 170 billion barrels of Tar Sands bitumen.  However, the Tar Sands total amount of bitumen, also known as “oil-in-place” (OIP), is 1,8 trillion barrels.  And as oil prices increase, which they will as consumption and demand increase, more and more of those 1,8 trillion barrels will become “economically viable”.  If we burn all 1,8 trillion barrels, the warming effect (including extraction and refining) is 0,42 degrees Celsius.  That is half the warming that we can afford from a single source of fossil fuel.

And this is where the “spin” comes in.  A report from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) used the smallest value (0,03 degrees of warming) and compared it to the effects of burning all of the world’s coal reserves (also calculated by the study) which is 15 degrees Celsius.  According to the CBC, the conclusion we should take from the study is that the Tar Sands aren’t that bad.  And you know that other “news” sources will spin the study the same way.  However, such interpretation ignores the final paragraph of the study:

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.

Or, as Joe Romm editor of Climate Progress paraphrased it:

In short, if you care about the 2C (3.6F) target, building something like the tar sands pipeline is a really bad idea.

Finally, when discussing his paper with Joe Romm, climatologist Andrew Weaver urged Mr. Romm to direct readers to his website and the video below ”in case the tar sands piece that Neil [Swart] and I published yesterday gets spun as a ‘tars sands is good’ story”.


P.S.: When talking about the Alberta Tar Sands, the focus is often on its impact on climate change.  However, we cannot forget that the Tar Sands’ environmental footprint goes beyond carbon emissions.  The cutting of the Boreal forest, the polluting of 3 to 5 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced, the release of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the neighboring ecosystem and the effect that has on the nearby First Nations populations.  A true analysis of the viability of the Tar Sands should take all these factors into consideration.  Unfortunately, it does not.

What taillings ponds are made of.  That used to be fresh water.  Photo: The Globe and Mail.

What taillings ponds are made of. That used to be fresh water. Photo: The Globe and Mail.


Sources: Confusing Climate Study Actually Makes Strong Case Against Tar Sands — If We Want To Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming and Alberta Oil Sands and Climate

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2012/03/01 12:17 pm

    The Venus syndrome:

    I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.

    James Hansen (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren, page 236

    • 2012/03/01 9:15 pm

      Martin (lackofenvironment) has mentioned that book before. I’ve thought of reading it but I’m afraid it might depress me!

      • 2012/03/02 7:37 am

        It might well do. But, in my opinion, not as much as Endgame Volume 1 The Problem of Civilization by derrick jensen would. I strongly suspect that part of the reason that free market fundamentalists are so vehement in their pursuit of climate change denial is because the truth can be so depressing — and since depressed people won’t spend as much money, it will do further harm to their sacred growth economy.

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