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Alberta’s bitumen sands: “negligible” climate effects, or the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”?

Posted on 28 April 2012 by Andy Skuce

*The climate effects of bitumen development are significant once viewed in the perspective of probable emissions over the rest of this century.

*The climate impact of coal consumption is greater than that of bitumen, particularly when non-mineable coal is considered.

*Accelerated expansion of bitumen extraction will make climate mitigation efforts much more difficult.

*Because of its high carbon emissions and high extraction costs, further bitumen development would not be viable if stringent global emissions policies were adopted.

The accelerating development of the huge bitumen* resources in Alberta has produced a great deal of recent public interest, due mainly to controversial proposals to build two big new pipelines: one connecting Alberta to the US Gulf Coast (Keystone XL) and the other to the Pacific coast of British Columbia (Northern Gateway). Much of the discussion has revolved around the dangers of leaks from the pipelines themselves and, in the case of the Northern Gateway proposal, the risks of tanker accidents in the narrow fjords of BC’s pristine northern coast and the turbulent Hecate Strait. Recent publications have also drawn attention to the massive damage to peatlands caused by bitumen mines and to the pollution of the Athabasca River. However, for the purposes of this article, I will focus only on the effect of bitumen sand exploitation on climate change.

The general topic was discussed previously at Skeptical Science in Tar Sands Impact on Climate Change.

A recent Commentary article in Nature Climate Change by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria (SW12, main paper is subscription only, supplementary information is free access) compared estimates of the potential for global warming caused by bitumen sands to those from other fossil-fuel resources. They showed that the "established resources” (a category similar but not identical to proven reserves) of the Alberta bitumen deposits are small relative to estimates of the total resource base of coal and unconventional gas. Swart and Weaver were careful to state that their results did not in any way provide a free pass to the bitumen industry with regards to carbon emissions. Their concluding paragraph reads:

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.

Misinterpretations of SW12 in the press

Nevertheless, some journalists in Canada and elsewhere have misinterpreted the paper to mean:

In their paper, Swart and Weaver conclude the impact of burning all the economically viable proven reserve of Alberta’s oilsands — all 170 billion barrels — would be negligible.

And, from the same article:

That’s a stark contrast to the claims of those such as NASA climate scientist James Hansen, a leading opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, who described Alberta’s oilsands as “the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

Another headline reads: Coal, not oil sands, the true climate change bad guy, analysis shows.

So what will the consequences of the development of Alberta’s bitumen resources be: “negligible” or “the biggest carbon bomb on the planet”?

The answer, I argue here, is: neither. 

Methodology of SW12


Figure 1, from Swart and Weaver (2012). The green box has been added here to better illustrate the “barely visible” contribution (in pink) of remaining established resources of bitumen.

SW12 relied on three main references for their resource estimates. Two are freely available: BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy (spreadsheet) and the 2011 report from Alberta’s ERCB. The third resource, Chapter 7 of the Global Energy Assessment, is in press and will not be publicly available until June 2012 (I have been unable to access a copy of this last source and will update this article later, if required).

The resource estimates were converted to the mass of carbon emitted when combusted, using standard factors detailed in the Supplementary Information. The carbon emissions were transformed into “warming potential” in degrees Celsius, using the methodology of Matthews et al (2009). This method estimates the amount of global warming from the cumulative mass of carbon emissions by means of the simple formula:

 ΔT = C × CCR

where ΔT is the increase in temperature, measured in degrees Celsius; C is the cumulative mass of carbon emitted, measured in trillions of tonnes of carbon (TtC); and CCR is the “carbon climate response”. The CCR value used was 1.5 °C/TtC with a 5th to 95th percentile range of 1.0-2.1. These values were derived from historical observations over the twentieth century. [Added: there is a clear explanation of this method at the blog ClimateSight.] The temperature contributions of the various resource estimates are plotted in Figure 1 and, at the scale of this figure, the warming effect of the bitumen is indeed "barely visible".

Although Figure 1 appears to implicitly support the “negligible” interpretation, I argue below that this stems from the way that SW12 has framed the comparison of the relative contribution of bitumen to climate change. First, though, let us look at the size of the bitumen carbon bomb, which SW12 have, at least in terms of "potential for warming", overestimated

The size of the bitumen bomb

Figure 2 shows the resource estimates taken from Alberta’s 2011 ERCB report in 2011, used by SW12. Focus for now on the bitumen columns.


Figure 2. Reserves and resources figures for Alberta’s bitumen, oil, gas and coal. (From page 5 of this ERCB report.) For reference, 1 billion barrels (Gbbl) of bitumen yields 0.13 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon; 1GT of coal yields ~0.7Gt of carbon.

The initial in-place volumes for bitumen are 1804Gbbl (238GtC), which is equivalent to the black bar (converted to warming potential) for “Alberta oil sands (OIP)” in Figure 1. This estimate was based on detailed mapping of the bitumen reservoirs, using many thousands of wells, as shown in Appendix E of the ERCB report. However, much of the in-place volume will never be recoverable. To cause warming the bitumen, obviously, has to be exhumed and combusted. The ERCB estimate for the ultimate recoverable resource is just 315Gbbl (42GtC), about one-sixth of the in-place volume. However, the fact that this volume is equivalent to the round number of 50,000 million cubic metres suggests that its determination may be arbitrary and, perhaps, conservative with regards to a true ultimate recoverable resource.

Most of the resources outside the “initial established” area will only be accessible by using in-situ methods such as SAGD (i.e., the sands are too deep to mine) and recovery factors for this process are found to be around 50%. The resources outside the "established” area occur in reservoir sands that are thinner and of poorer quality than in the area under active development and would have, using current technology, recovery factors lower than 50%. Even with big improvements in future technology, the in-place numbers (and the ΔT value of 0.36°C) presented by SW12 are higher than any feasible extractable resource, perhaps by a factor of two, and are, in any case, many times higher than the ERCB’s current ultimate potential recoverable estimate. Swart and Weaver are well aware of the in-place/recoverable resource distinction (Neil Swart, personal communication) but they presented the OIP amount and the calculated ΔT values as absolute upper limits.

James Hansen, in a Huffington Post article, cites the IPCC AR4 WGIII report (page 268), which says that Canada’s bitumen resources represent at least 400Gt of “stored carbon” (the reference for this number is not clear). This implies an in-place mass some 68% higher than the ERCB’s in-place estimate and more than nine times the ERCB ultimate recoverable potential resource. The WGIII report states that 310Gbbl (~41GtC) of the bitumen resources are recoverable, a figure close to that of the latest ERCB number of 315Gbbl.

The columns on the right of the table in Figure 2 show the ERCB estimate of ultimate potential recoverable resources of coal of 620Gt (440GtC). This estimate is much larger than the established (mineable) coal resources because it includes seams too deep to mine that, in the future, may be exploitable by in-situ underground coal gasification. Therefore, even using the high IPCC in-place estimate, not only are the bitumen deposits not the biggest carbon bomb on the planet, they may not even be the biggest carbon bomb in Alberta. 

Reframing the relative significance of twenty-first century bitumen exploitation

The horizontal axis of Figure 1 has been stretched to accommodate the “total resource base” a quantity more than 90% of which derives from combined estimates of global coal and unconventional gas reserves. These vast resource numbers represent many centuries of potential consumption. For example, the global coal resource base (9800GtC) is some 16 times bigger than the current proven reserves of coal (614GtC), which at current consumption levels would last 118 years, according to the BP report. Thus, the global coal resource (the largest blue bar on Figure 1) would, at current rates, take nearly 1900 years to consume.

The global unconventional gas resource base, 1910GtC, of which ~75% comprise methane hydrates (Neil Swart, personal communication), is 18 times the BP proven gas reserves of 107GtC, which has a reserve life of 59 years based on current consumption rates. Therefore, it would take us about 1000 years to burn up these unconventional gas resources at current gas consumption rates. Neither the unproven coal resources nor the gas hydrates are likely to be exploited significantly in this century, because abundant cheaper, proven reserves of coal and gas, as well as shale gas and unconventional oil, are available.

In contrast to the large coal and hydrate gas resources, the proven reserves of oil, gas and coal have already been found and quantified, and are mostly developed. In the majority of economic scenarios these reserves will be mostly consumed over the rest of this century.

Policy decisions currently being made over new pipelines will determine how fast the bitumen resources are developed over a similar time frame. Although it was instructive for SW12 to have placed the bitumen resources in the perspective of all available fossil-fuel resources, it would be perhaps more useful to examine the likely contribution of bitumen consumption to emissions over the remainder of this century. Also, this allows us to compare fossil-fuel resources with established resource bases and proven viable production technologies.

Predicting trends in energy production and consumption is no easy task, depending as it does on a large number of unpredictable economic, regulatory, technological, geological and geopolitical variables. The uncertainty is illustrated in Figure 3, taken from the IPCC SRES study, in which 2100 emissions may be as much as three times 2010 emissions or as little as half, depending on the story line. For the sake of simplicity, I have assumed just two models here: one where all proven fossil fuels are used up by 2100; and another in which 2010 consumption rates for oil, gas and coal are held constant for 90 years.


Figure 3. From the IPCC SRES study, Figure 5.2. The lines illustrate annual carbon dioxide emissions (expressed as GtC/yr) for the various scenario families: A1, red; A2, brown; B1, green; B2 blue. The heavy black dotted line has been added to show 2010 emissions held flat for the rest of the century.

Enbridge, the company applying to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, has projected that, by 2035, the supply of diluted bitumen and synthetic crude from Alberta will be 5.8 million barrels per day (bopd). About 20% of this volume will be diluent (lighter crude oils, mostly imported), so that net bitumen production will be about 4.6 million barrels per day; a three-fold increase from 2010 production levels of approximately 1.5 million bopd. If—there are doubts that capital, skilled workers and other resources will be sufficient—this increase can be achieved and if, after 2035, bitumen production continues to increase at a modest rate of 40,000 bopd per year, then the entire established remaining resources of bitumen of 169Gbbl will have been produced by the end of this century.

Bar charts representing the two scenarios are shown in Figure 4. The main difference between the two cases is the relative contribution of coal versus oil and gas. The “proven resources case” would require accelerated coal consumption to make up for exhaustion of the oil and gas resources (perhaps through coal-to-gas or coal-to-liquids technologies) and the “flat consumption case” would require additional resources of gas and oil from new discoveries, reserves growth, and unconventional oil and gas.

The carbon contribution of bitumen has been increased by 17% to account for the extra emissions required. This figure is taken from a note by Swart and Weaver and is based on a paper by Charpentier et al. (2009). SW12 left out this uplift in emissions in their paper because they were looking at the consequences of using the entirety of the fossil-fuel resources and, uplifting the emissions of the bitumen production would have been double counting. However, when we look at this century only, we can include these extra emissions because developing bitumen leads to more demand, especially for gas.

Figure 4. Warming potential (using the same method used in SW12) in 2100, assuming consumption of all proven fossil-fuel reserves (top) and constant consumption of fossil fuels at 2010 rates throughout the rest of the century (bottom). The contribution of the established bitumen resources is shown in blue. The bars are built on a base of 0.825°C warming, calculated using the SW12 methodology, assuming cumulative emissions of 550GtC prior to 2010.

Neither scenario is presented here as a realistic future prediction; the goal is merely to illustrate the relative contribution of bitumen in low-consumption scenarios. In all likelihood, in the absence of policy constraints on fossil-fuel consumption, actual emissions of carbon will be much higher (from coal, shale gas, reserve growthundiscovered oil and gas and unconventional oil).

In Figure 4, the relative contribution of bitumen to global warming no longer appears “negligible” but neither could it be considered, all by itself, to be catastrophic. 

Wedges, steps in the wrong direction and making the polluter pay

The Carbon Mitigation Initiative of Princeton University writes:

To get on track to avoiding dramatic climate change, the world must avoid emitting about 200 billion tons of carbon, or eight 25 billion ton wedges, over the next 50 years.

The contribution of bitumen consumption to climate change may look insignificant compared to exhuming and burning the world’s entire fossil-fuel resources (Figure 1) and even appears small when placed alongside current proven fossil-fuel reserves, as in Figure 4. However, the carbon that will be emitted as a result of the development of established bitumen resources over the remainder of this century amounts to 22.5GtC (26.1 GtC if the well-to-tank emissions are included), comparable in magnitude— but opposite in sign—to one of the eight Princeton wedges. By consuming Alberta’s bitumen, therefore, we are effectively adding one more wedge on top of the "current path" ramp, increasing the challenge of mitigating climate change by ~12%. This means that we are taking a step closer to the brink, when instead we need to take eight steps back.

Figure 5. An illustration of the Princeton wedge concept. No single wedge is decisive in combatting climate change, all are needed. Developing Alberta’s bitumen adds a wedge of extra emissions on top of the ramp of the current path. Source. See also the Skeptical Science rebuttal to the myth "It's too hard".

Promoters of Alberta’s bitumen deposits, at least when talking to Canadians (for example), are quick to boast of the wealth that is to be created by their development, referring to the absolute numbers of jobs generated and the positive impact on Canada’s economy. When dealing with the damaging contribution to climate change, their framing switches to a global one, making the emissions from bitumen seem small compared to global emissions, and, referring to SW12's Figure 1, vanishingly small compared to the emissions we might create were we so foolish as to burn the entire massive global resource of coal over a period of many centuries.

Perhaps the tables should be turned on this framing: let’s show how tiny the economic benefits of the bitumen bonanza would be if they were distributed evenly over the whole planet and how utterly insignificant they would be if they were spread over the next several centuries. More practically, let's apply the full environmental costs of bitumen use to those receiving the benefits from producing and consuming the derived fuels.

This is the central tragedy of the climate change problem. The benefits of burning fossil fuels are concentrated on relatively few people and are fleeting, yet the environmental costs are globally dispersed and are spread over millennia. As long as the atmosphere is used as a cost-free dumping-ground by producers and consumers of fossil fuels alike, then the harm from this practice is going to be selfishly passed on to others, especially the poor and the unborn.

A study from MIT demonstrates that the Canadian bitumen industry is highly vulnerable to climate policy. As the world’s most carbon-intensive and expensive major source of petroleum, Canada’s bitumen industry will be hit first and hardest by carbon emission mitigation policies and by any consequent drop in demand for petroleum. As the MIT study says:

The niche for the oil sands industry seems fairly narrow and mostly involves hoping that climate policy will fail.

In the light of the continuing failure of global or continental carbon reduction policies, Alberta’s bitumen producers can probably mutter to themselves: so far, so good. Eventually, though, the worsening climate crisis will impel global action on emissions, forcing the importers of bitumen to find cleaner sources of energy. When that day finally comes, the bigger the bitumen industry will then be, the harder it will fall.


The Swart and Weaver article provoked an angry response from one of Canada’s leading energy economists, Mark Jaccard:

Dr. Weaver and Mr. Swart are climate modellers. If they had consulted any of the world-leading independent energy-economy modellers at MIT, University of Maryland, Berlin, Vienna or Stanford, they would have done a different study by looking at combined sets of reductions around the world, and recognizing that all components currently or potentially in use are part of the solution.


Usually, CAPP [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] and its allied governments have to pay for someone to propagate the fallacy of composition in order to justify a continuation of fossil fuel profiteering in Canada at the planet’s expense. For once, they get it for free.

The second paragraph quoted is unduly harsh, in my opinion. Swart and Weaver, as scientists, have provided a useful and needed quantification of the relative effects of exploiting bitumen. It is possible, as I have done, to argue with some of their numbers and to disagree with the way they have framed the comparison between bitumen and other fossil-fuel resources. However, it is abundantly clear, once you read the entirety of their Nature article, that they were not motivated in any way to promote "fossil fuel profiteering in Canada at the planet's expense". On the contrary; Swart and Weaver take pains to demonstrate, both in the paper and in more detail on Swart's website, the outsized contribution that bitumen exploitation will make to North America's carbon footprint. 

* A note on terminology. Bitumen sands are more widely known as oil sands or tar sands. Unfortunately, the terminology has become politically loaded, with the proponents of development preferring oil sands and the opponents tending to use tar sands more. Bitumen is neutral and more scientifically correct, but it is more of a mouthful.

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Comments 1 to 31:

  1. Excellent Article. Where do you get the numbers for converting bbl oil to gtC and TtC to deltaT? I've been looking for a sourced database of these constants for awhile.
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  2. Ryan, thanks. You can find what you are looking for in the Supplementary Information for Swart and Weaver's paper which, I believe, is open access. The Matthews et al paper has more background on the delta T calculation methodology.
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  3. Thanks Andy for this insightful article. There is one thing that I would like to point out. Discussion of this paper has largely centered around Figure 1, and inferred that it is a comparison of oil-sands to other fossil fuels, and in this context that oil sands are not too bad. In fact this was not the intention. If you read the text of SW12, we calculate that North American usage of the tarsands would lead to massive per capita carbon footprints, although this point is barely reported anywhere (including here). We never state anywhere that tarsands emissions are "negligible", but rather the opposite, with statements like "The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oil-sand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint [ of 64 tonnes / person ]." But recognizing that North Americans only comprise 5% of the global population we then state "...many other sources of fossil fuels will also be needed if growing Chinese, and indeed worldwide, energy demand is to be met through the exploitation of fossil fuels." We calculate the potential for warming of other resources to compare them with the 2°C 'guardrail', not necessarily with each other . That is, we recognize that people in other parts of the world do not have tarsands themselves, but if they follow the Albertan example on hydrocarbon exploitation for energy, they will extract what is locally available to them. I believed this to be important because in and of themselves, the tarsands cannot take us over 2°C, BUT large scale extraction of fossil-fuels globally could lead us to exceed that limit many-fold. In other words, the message is "if we do this in Canada, we should expect that others globally will follow our example, in which case the warming will be large". This is discussed in detail at our website. -Neil
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  4. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Neil. To be clear, I did refer, in my concluding paragraph, to your discussion of carbon footprints: Swart and Weaver take pains to demonstrate, both in the paper and in more detail on Swart's website, the outsized contribution that bitumen exploitation will make to North America's carbon footprint I agree that many commentators only reported what they wanted to hear and misrepresented your overall message.
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  5. Yes, thanks Andy, that is fair, you certainly do mention it. I suppose I mean in general the size and implications of the North American carbon footprint from tarsands that we calculate has not been reported (particularly in the popular media). In essence, the conclusion is "if the populations of the USA and Canada were to extensively utilize the Alberta oil-sands proven reserve, it would almost certainly be incompatible with doing a globally equal share (85 tC) in keeping warming below 2°C. " -Neil
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  6. Nice piece, as always Andy. Although all of the emission pathways, extraction choices, etc., are inherently incredibly complex, I find incredibly frustrating the morass of terminologies and metrics we use. In my naive opinion, we should be looking at all of these choices in the context of "carbon budget" or "cumulative emissions" approaches, such as that developed for, based on Allen et al. (2009), Meinshausen et al. (2009), and others. Ultimately, the signficance (or not) of bitumen extraction and combustion needs to be assessed in the context of the remaining carbon budget. In fact, I think that is the scientifically credible "denominator" that needs to be used for all of these sources. And I think that is largely where your piece (and Neil's commentary) start to lead. But since I am typing now anyway, if you take the base case - assuming a 50% likelihood of avoiding a 2°C temperature rise - then we have about a 443 GtC remaining budget. And that is from ALL of fossil fuels, land use change, deforestation and cement. If you assume that fossil fuel combustion alone gets an 80% share of that budget, then you are left with 354 GtC. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative "proven" reserves of carbon for coal, oil and gas are - respectively - about 500 GtC, 170 GtC and 100 GtC. (On the last page of SW12, their estimates for "reserves" are 614, 158 and 107 GtC, respectively, but close enough for my point here.) The Carbon Tracker numbers exclude "probable" and "possible" reserves, and obviously the SW12 reserves are a small subset of "resources". My point is that we are going to address the global commitments of the Copenhagen accord in a scientifically credible way, then you have all of those reserves - and a lot of more potential - of carbon trying to squeeze into that remaining budget. All of a sudden, a bitumen expoitation over the century of 22.5 GtC is 6.3% of the remaining budget of 343 GtC for fossil fuels. Or, if one were to assumen that "oil" were to get a remaining share of the budget equal to it's current emissions share of about 33%, then bitumen would be claiming almost a 22.5/(33% * 354) = 19%. (A share that I don't think the rest of the world's oil producers would endorse; nor would they sit by idly in terms of pricing while the oil sands production ate up their remaining share of budget!) My point is that any sort of analysis that uses a "remaining carbon budget" as the denominator (instead of reserves, or resources, or current emissions share, etc.) starts to put the potential impact of bitumen production at much higher percentages. And I seriously think that this is the only scientifically credible "denominator" there is if we are serious about tackling climate change. Which is why, of course, as you note, the case "for the oil sands industry seems fairly narrow and mostly involves hoping that climate policy will fail." I am going to finish with a quote from the MIT study you reference: "with CO2 emissions (constraints) implemented worldwide, the Canadian bitumen production becomes essentially non-viable even with CCS technology, at least through our 2050 horizon. The main reason for the demise of the oil sands industry with global CO2 policy is that the demand for oil worldwide drops substantially. CCS takes care of emissions from the oil sands production, upgrading, and refining processes, at a cost, but there is so little demand for petroleum products which still emit CO2 when used that it can be met with conventional oil resources that entail less CO2 emissions in the production process." My highlights. If one were to engage in a bit of game theory, you can certainly see that in a climate change policy world of serious carbon constraints, owners of bitumen resources would be severely impacted. So they are highly motivated to downplay both the need for constraints, and the impact of their particular resource on the dilemma in total. So, I think we need to always keep bringing the issue back to some sort of carbon budget denominator (or similar) metric. Not just for bitumen, for all of our carbon choices. And although I think that was the underlying message of SW12, I appreciate your work here, Andy, it making it so much more explicit. Cheers.
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  7. Great comment, Rust, thank you. Yes, it's the cumulative carbon targets that are the important ones to emphasize: they are scientifically robust, easy to grasp and hard to manipulate. One thing I didn't get into above is the political dimension, here in Canada . Deep Climate has a good couple of posts showing the incompatibility between Canada's emissions targets and the plans for scaling up bitumen production. On one hand, we have the government promising significant emissions cuts and on the other hand promising the Premier of China that bitumen production will ramp up to 6 million barrels per day and that there will be pipelines available for export to the Pacific. So, we have to wonder, would Stephen Harper rather deceive Canadians concerned about climate change or the government of China? Answers on a postcard please... Now it appears that the Alberta Government's plan to mitigate emissions though carbon capture and storage is falling apart. Not due to technical shortcomings but instead to the lack of a sufficiently stringent carbon price (the current price is $15/tonne on "excess" emissions). As you say: they are highly motivated to downplay both the need for constraints, and the impact of their particular resource on the dilemma in total. This will become ever more acute as the economy of the country becomes increasingly dependent on bitumen exports; the government's temptation to double down and deny the science as a means of avoiding regulation will become irresistible.
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  8. I find the argument that we should stop tar sands exploitation to prevent emissions to be unconvincing. What we need is to reduce total emissions not where they are coming from. If we prevent exploitation of one resource, we will just increase exploitation of another resource. Yes, this may have some effect through higher prices, but that effect depends on the elasticity of demand. I believe demand is fairly insensitive to price of oil. Trying to prevent tar sand exploitation reminds me of the US efforts to fight drugs by going after coca farmers in South America. It may have had a small effect through higher prices, but it mainly made the drug traffickers richer without much influence on drug consumption. What is needed are policies that target total demand. Then, as stated toward the end of post #6, tar sands will not be developed because they are uneconomical.
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  9. I found this article interesting, but I couldn't help thinking that, by its careful and in-depth analysis, it might turn a ludicrous denialist argument into a serious one, that would actually be worthy of a scientific debate. Basically, as I understand it, correct me if I'm wrong, we're being told in the newspapers you quoted that tar sands extraction in Canada is not a problem... when you compare it to worldwide extraction of carbon-containing materials! If you accept this approach, then no crime is problematic anymore. You just need to compare it to worldwide statistics, and a murder or a rape, for example, becomes a crime on only 0,0000...00001 % of the human population, a gas-guzzling car, compared to 1 billion other cars, is no problem either, etc. By the same token, no coal mine on its own, no oil field on its own, no country on its own, is a problem for the climate, while at the same time all together lead to the destruction of the said climate... I seems to me that even before your careful analysis, if indeed it was needed and not counter-productive, you should point out that the very idea of comparing tar sands in Canada to worldwide pollution of the climate is in and of itself clownish.
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  10. Absolute madness... Keeps the president and delusion going.
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  11. Pierre-Emmanuel Neurohr@9 I agree, using that argument is foolish. I think that was what Mark Jaccard (see the last section of my article) was getting at with his mention of the "fallacy of composition". My favourite analogy is that of a schoolboy arguing that he shouldn't be stopped from peeing in the swimming pool because it makes hardly any difference compared to the whole school doing it. What I was trying to show was not that such an argument is silly--although it is--but that it is, in any case, wrong.
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  12. To follow-on to Pierre-Emmanuel line of reasoning, greenwashing the Tar Sands is like this:
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  13. Andy, you mentioned at the start of your article the proposed pipelines, Keystone and Northern Gateway. Don't forget about the one that is managing to stay under the radar, the twinning of Kinder Morgan's Transmountain Pipeline which would increase its capacity by aprox 500,000 barrels per day of dil-bit. At present it carries about 350,000 bpd of a mixture of products, crude oil, refined and semi-refined products in what they call a "batch train". This pipeline goes straight into the greater Vancouver area. There have been a number of spills in this system recently. The importance of pipeline capacity is that it is very cheap (relatively speaking) to set up a surface mine or SAGD operation but it is very expensive to build an upgrader. Thus these pipelines will allow much more rapid expansion than if the bitumen was upgraded and refined in Alberta. Just in today's Herald it was pointed out that Alberta lost $18 billion dollars last year because of the price differential between heavy-oil/bitumen and conventional crude.
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  14. Pierre@9: Well said! I've heard it a slightly different way... "Not *MY* fault!", screams every flake in an avalanche.....
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  15. Ian@13: there is also the proposed natural gas pipeline, all the way from my home county of weld, in Colorado ("Got gas? We'll drill for it!!") all the way to the Gulf...from my house, I can see the excavations beginning. What could go wrong with *that*? ={;-(
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  16. To get at the tar sands through open pit operations, you first take out the surface soils. In the Athabasca, "the overburden consists of water-laden muskeg (peat bog) over top of clay and barren sand." In considering carbon impact, SW12 leaves out this minor detail, which was more fully analyzed by Rooney et al 2011; Contrary to claims made in the media, peatland destroyed by open-pit mining will not be restored. Current plans dictate its replacement with upland forest and tailings storage lakes, amounting to the destruction of over 29,500 ha of peatland habitat. Landscape changes caused by currently approved mines will release between 11.4 and 47.3 million metric tons of stored carbon and will reduce carbon sequestration potential by 5,734–7,241 metric tons C/y.
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  17. In the "clean world" we all-non-denialist aspire to, the true "bad footprint" of any type of fosil energy source should simply be measured by CO2 emmissions per the unit of usable enrgy: i.e. the energy the consumer is buying. In that simple measure, tar sands are I believe one of the worst type of source, even worse than brown coal, becaue of high amount of energy required for its refining. After brown coal comes black coal, then oil, then natural gas. I don't have the numbers (CO2/W) at hand but maybe someone has and post them here so as to put the "dirtyness" or CO2 footprint of sand tars in better perspective. The discussion about the impact of tar sand mining in AB on AGW should be based on that bottom line numbers, IMO.
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  18. chriskoz, some figures are given here although I can't vouch for their accuracy.
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  19. Suggested reading: “U.S. 'dirty oil' imports set to triple” by Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney Apr 30, 2012. This not particularly good news.
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  20. Reserves : 100 billion barrels is 15*10^9 toe. Energy intensity : 1 toe produces 5 000 dollars of wealth (GDP). => 15*10^9 toe = 75 trillion dollars. That's a potential 20 000$ dollars of wealth per year and per Canadian over 100 years. My guess is that they'll exploit it.
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  21. Helena: $75 trillion value for 100 billion barrels is $750 per barrel. I'm not sure where you got the $5000 per toe GDP figure from. I think that bitumen sells for about 1/10th of that currently, before deduction of supply costs (about $20 per barrel). Perhaps a more realistic value figure would be approximately $50 per barrel. Indeed, there's a lot of money to be made from producing bitumen(although not nearly as much as you say) and the current governments of Canada and Alberta are planning to exploit the resources as fast as they can.
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  22. Andy : The 5000$ per toe is the average energy intensity. Sure 50$ is the price of one barrel, but that's not the wealth it generates. It obvisouly generates much more money than it costs. And actually that's what energy efficiency policies are all about : getting one unit of GDP with less energy, or, in other words, generating more wealth from a given amount of energy. PS : At 50$ a barrel (which is an extreme minimum), you already get 5 trillion dollars, which represents 3 full years of Canadian GDP (i.e total production).
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  23. Helena, You're playing fast and loose with concepts. What you're saying is that the use of energy generates income. Really? Big surprise. But $50 worth of energy from any source will generate that same income. Canada does not earn more by using their own oil. And it's not like they lose $75 trillion if they fail to exploit their oil. They only lose it if they fail to exploit that oil and completely ignore the availability of any alternative energy. The point of your argument is completely empty.
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  24. Concerning your last point (5 trillion dollars)... but how long might it take for them to exploit all of that oil? 30 years? 50 years? 100 years? So your number really could be as little as $50 billion per year. Peanuts. You can make any number look big by rolling it up into one over time. The reality is that the current owners -- the individuals -- of fossil fuel resources do stand to lose large sums if they don't get to exploit and sell those resources. But society as a whole loses nothing if we successfully supplant those resources before completely consuming them. You would just as well argue that we should not have moved to automobiles until all the horses on the planet had died.
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  25. Sphaerica : On your first point, what's the alternative to oil ? Electricity ? That means massive infrastructure investments, and a complete change of paradigm. That's maybe what you wish, but the cheapest, easiest and most likely solution is that we'll stick to oil for still quite some time (even at high prices, because there is no alternative that efficient and energy dense). On your second point, good to know that, by taking the lowest of the two figures and dividing it by 100years, you stil get 50 billion $ per year and manage to say that this is a small figure. Just a reminder : Canada is about 35 million people, so if it were the US (per capita) it would be equivalent to 500 billions dollars par year. Does it look like a small figure ? 50 billions $ is 3% of their GDP and 25% of the annual government expenditures.
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  26. "You would just as well argue that we should not have moved to automobiles until all the horses on the planet had died. " People moved to automobiles because they were cheaper, more convenient, and more energy dense. And horses haven't disappeared, they're just used for other less primary purposes. Like oil, if you find a better source (which is on the case yet), it will still get exploited for other uses.
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  27. Automobiles were not cheaper than horses, but this is irrelevant as far as the reasoning Helena is supporting (or fearing) is concerned. We should fear it because not always (at best) short term convenience is the best choice, more so when a long term global problem, like the energetic structure of our societies, is involved.
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  28. 26 - Regarding moving to cars. From Horse Power to Horsepower, by Eric Morris is worth a read. In summary; the environmental impact from widespread horse usage neared catastrophic levels before the car became viable and, in part, drove the commercialisation of the car. Now the environmental impact from cars (etc.) will drive new innovation... and new commercial opportunities.
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  29. From Helena #25: On your first point, what's the alternative to oil ? Electricity ? That means massive infrastructure investments, and a complete change of paradigm. That's maybe what you wish, but the cheapest, easiest and most likely solution is that we'll stick to oil for still quite some time (even at high prices, because there is no alternative that efficient and energy dense Given the consequences of continued dependence on fossil fuel combustion, any disruption resulting from making the switch will be less significant and less destructive than sticking to oil "for quite some time". In any case, I do not see massive infrastructure investments to de-carbonize our societies as undue burdens. Rather, they are opportunities for entrepreneurial agents to make money (and such massive investments will surely require much labour, which I expect would attenuate or even outweigh unemployment resulting from declining fossil fuel exploitation).
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  30. Helena@22: The wealth that you say is generated by oil (or equivalent) requires many other inputs (materials, human effort, etc). In any case, that GDP wealth accrues to the consumer of the oil, not the producer as your argument @20 implied. Certainly, the business of producing bitumen is a profitable one at current prices and it is especially so when the negative externalities are not paid for by consumers or producers. Bitumen production is already a significant part of the Canadian economy and, if production doubles and triples over the years to come, then it will become increasingly more important. Climate issues aside, I worry about my country becoming increasingly dependent on a single resource extraction industry in a world economy that is changing so rapidly. @25 Just because nobody can say with any confidence what the ultimate substitutes for oil will be, it doesn't mean there won't be any. I'm sure the whalers didn't see Colonel Drake coming with his cheap mineral oil, nor did buggy-whip manufacturers foresee Henry Ford.
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  31. Global warming is caused not by people producing oil but by people using oil. If people stopped using gasoline to power huge SUVs, developing the bitumen sands would not be profitable and would stop. And rather than blaming Canada or Alberta for the geographic location of the bitumen sands, we should be thankful that the oil sands are in a province where a politician who questions global warming could lose an election.
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