Canada's oilsands outpace carbon emissions of European countries

Posted: 17 September 2009

Concern about the continuing exploitation of Canada's oilsands, the biggest and most polluting fossil fuel energy project in the world, has grown in anticipation of the meeting this week of Canadian premier Stephen Harper and President Obama in Washington. It coincides with a new report from Greenpeace to be released on Monday which will show that Alberta's oilsands produce more greenhouse gas emissions than some European countries right now and will produce more than all of the world's volcanoes in just 11 years if the pace of development continues.

Writing for The Canadian Press agency, Mary Jo Laforest, says the report, entitled "Dirty - How the tar sands are fuelling global climate change" was commissioned by Greenpeace from Andrew Nikiforuk, a business and environmental reporter. "Nobody in Canada wants to talk about the scale issues," he told Laforest in an interview on Saturday.

Oil sands mine, Canada
Oil sands mine, Canada
Mining operations at the Syncrude mine. Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute
"The emissions are bigger than Estonia and Lithuania right now and in 2020 will be larger than countries like Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Denmark."

According to Laforest the report documents the "real" cost of the oilsands, which Nikiforuk says is the world's largest energy project.

"The major energy projects in the Middle East... they don't come anywhere near - none of them approach the scale and capital intensity of the oilsands."

The report says almost $200 billion has been or will be invested in the projects in northern Alberta, and that includes not only the oilsands, but pipelines, refinery expansions and other associated infrastructure.

It adds that the liabilities are a nearly threefold increase in greenhouse gas emissions, enormous amounts of natural gas used and wasted to produce synthetic oil from bitumen - which consists of tarry pitch, or asphalt - and the "economic nightmare" of carbon capture and storage, a technology that has yet to be developed.

Hansen's plea

In a separate Op-Ed published by the Toronto Star James Hansen,the world-renowned climatologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, spelt out Canada's abysmal record on climate change and pleaded for Canadians to make their environmental concerns loud and clear. He writes:

In 1988, when I addressed the U.S. Congress on the dangers of global warming, I warned leaders that it was time to stop waffling. Humans were changing the climate in new and dangerous ways and we needed to take action. At the time, I knew we could expect stiff resistance from the usual suspects, but if you had told me that 20 years later, one of the most stubborn holdouts would be a self-interested Canada, I wouldn't have believed you.

That's because then, as now, Canadians are a compassionate people, concerned about the environment and the role their government plays on the international stage. And yet, there are few countries I can think of that have done more to undermine international efforts to fight climate change in recent years, than Canada. The evidence is easy to find:

In California, as recently as April of this year, Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt personally lobbied the governor of California to oppose a law that would curb California's appetite for carbon-intensive fuels, and would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Bali, Indonesia, Canadian officials worked behind the scenes to scuttle a potential climate deal by insisting that developing countries make emission cuts they couldn't afford to make. This, while the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, home to some of the world's first climate refugees, was pleading its case to the international community.

Further afield, in Bonn, Germany, Canada recently refused to join the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) whose membership includes almost every developed nation, including the United States, and whose stated goal is: "... promoting the adoption of renewable energy worldwide."

In your own backyard, 74 per cent of Canadians believe the government should do more to protect the environment (Harris/Decima, Aug. 23, 2009), and yet this past month, Environment Minister Jim Prentice made a pitch for a pipeline project to send tar sands oil from Alberta to British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto supertankers and shipped to Asia, all in a bid to avoid North American climate regulations and to, in his words, "keep the market honest."

Oil sands operation, Athabasca Rover
Oil sands operation, Athabasca Rover
Looking south towards the Syncrude operations along the Athabasca River. Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute
How is all of this possible? Does the Canadian government know better than its own people what is in the best interests of the country? That's a dangerous delusion, and it's one I've seen before in my own country. "It's not time," "Wait and see," "It's someone else's turn" - these stalls are the opposite of leadership, and in the climate era, they are downright dangerous.

There's a small price for being too early, but a huge penalty for being too late when it comes to fighting climate change. The huge penalty, in Canada's case, ranges from species extinction and extreme weather events, such as raging forest fires and tornadoes, to losses in agricultural productivity and new security threats posed by terrorism and the prospect of climate refugees.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with President Barack Obama in Washington this week to discuss clean energy and climate, I hope the Canadian public and media keep him honest. Close attention should be paid to any special treatment Harper attempts to gain for Canada's tar sands, your country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a problematic industry linked to serious environmental degradation and human health issues. If he's still lobbying for "intensity targets," or pitting one part of the country against the other under a hard cap, you'll know he's stalling.

When it comes to fighting climate change, the will of Canadians is clear. The world is waiting to hear your voice and to see your country take action. You just need a government that's willing to actually represent you, free of distortion, beholden to no other special interest besides the best interest of Canadians.

That's true leadership, and in the climate era, it's a prerequisite for survival.

James Hansen is the 2009 recipient of the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, the highest honour bestowed by the American Meteorological Society.

Source: The Canadian Press (12 September 2009) Toronto Star (16 September 2009)

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