Canada’s oil sands: Not so dirty after all – by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail – February 21, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

CALGARY— Canada’s government, which has threatened a trade war over a proposed European rule to penalize oil-sands crude in a bid to clean up transportation fuels, has a powerful new argument in its favour, as new research shows other energy sources are far more dangerous to the climate.

On Thursday, a committee of the European Union will vote on a proposed fuel-quality directive intended to reduce the carbon footprint of gasoline and diesel on that continent. The directive directly penalizes oil-sands crude for its high-emissions content, using language that oil-sands supporters and others have called “flawed,” “discriminatory” and worse.

If passed, such a directive could set a precedent for other international fuel rules that challenge oil-sands products, a prospect that has deeply alarmed Canada’s political and corporate leadership. Officials have waged a years-long lobbying campaign to have it changed, enlisting the help of European nations with oil-sands interests such as Britain and the Netherlands.

But the EU vote comes against a landscape newly shifted by research showing that on a global scale, oil-sands emissions are not the dark-shirted villain some have made them out to be. That research, published in the journal Nature and co-authored by one of Canada’s most respected climate scientists, throws a wrench into the debate over an energy source whose reputed “dirtiness” has sparked fiery debate around the world. In North America, climate concerns have been at the heart of the concerted environmental movement against Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, a pair of proposed oil-sands pipelines that have struggled against a tide of public opposition.

The research, by University of Victoria scientists Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart, calculates the climate impact of producing the oil sands. Dr. Weaver is an internationally respected scientist who has contributed to United Nations climate-change documents. He and Dr. Swart completed several analyses.

The most important examined the impact of producing the roughly 170 billion barrels of oil-sands crude that the industry currently considers economic to produce. If it’s all hauled out of the ground – a process that will take more than a century, even at the forecast 2020 rate of three million barrels a day – the cumulative global-warming impact is 0.02 to 0.05 degrees Celsius, according to the research.

If every barrel of the oil-sands resource is produced – a near-certain impossibility that would see some 1.8 trillion barrels, seven times the size of Saudi Arabia’s current reserves, brought out – it would raise global temperatures by one-third of a degree.

By comparison, burning all of the world’s enormous coal resources would raise temperatures 15 degrees, while consuming the new global bounty of shale gas would produce a lift of just under 3 degrees. (Using up economically accessible reserves of natural gas and coal will raise temperatures 0.16 and 0.9 degrees, respectively.)

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