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The legal fight to leave the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground

Posted on 14 June 2018 by John Abraham

Tar sands are the dirtiest fossil fuels. These are low-quality heavy tar-like oils that are mined from sand or rock. Much of the mining occurs in Alberta Canada, but it is also mined elsewhere, in lesser quantities.

Tar sands are the worst. Not only are they really hard to get out of the ground, requiring enormous amounts of energy; not only are they difficult to transport and to refine; not only are they more polluting than regular oils; they even have a by-product called ”petcoke” that’s used in power plants, but is dirtier than regular coal.

This stuff is worse than regular oil, worse than coal, worse than anything. Anyone who is serious about climate change cannot agree to mine and burn tar sands. To maintain climate change below critical thresholds, tar sands need to be left in the ground.

This fact is what motivated me to testify to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission last November, to inform my state’s ruling commission about the impact of tar sands on the climate. Canadian energy company Enbridge has petitioned to put a pipeline through my state to carry this dirty tar to refining sites on the coast. 

The proposed pipeline is called “Line 3.” The pipeline would carry approximately 760,000 barrels per day – the new pipeline would make it easier and cheaper for the oil companies to transport tar sands and consequently, would boost their bottom line. We already move over two million barrels per day through Minnesota in Enbridge pipelines. This new pipeline would encourage them to extract and sell more tar sands.

So, how much pollution would this pipeline carry? 170bn kilograms of carbon dioxide each year. The emissions are equal to approximately 50 coal power plants. These are huge numbers, but more importantly, approval of pipelines like this make it more likely that all of the tar sands in Alberta will be extracted. If that happens, global temperatures will increase by approximately 0.65°F (0.36°C). An astonishing number – approximately 3 decades worth of global warming.

If you care about climate change, then it is not logically possible to approve any pipeline or other infrastructure that may further worsen our climate. We are already screwing up the climate enough as it is. 

The decision-making body in my state has heard climate arguments before. In fact, in 2016, the same body ruled against the coal giant Peabody. That ruling decided that fossil fuel companies low-balled the social cost of carbon. Back then, Peabody brought in a group of climate contrarians to argue their nonsense. My colleagues and I were able to convince the Commission that the facts were clear – we are causing climate change, and our decisions today can make tomorrow’s climate worse. This ruling was used when evaluating the social cost of carbon pollution for a new Line 3 pipeline. A judge found that emissions from this project would impose $287bn in social costs over 30 years.

In this case, the oil company Enbridge did not invite any contrarian climate scientists. They simply focused on arguments that a new pipeline will be safer to operate (fewer spills) and lessen other issues like rail traffic. They effectively conceded the climate arguments.

The decision will be revealed later this month. But already, an Administrative Law Judge has given a recommendation that the new pipeline be built, but in the exact same location as the current pipe. While this recommendation presents large costs to Enbridge, it completely misses the science. The judge’s opinion made no mention of climate change. How can a decision on extracting tar sands be made without considering climate effects?

Just last week, the staff of the commission also recommended construction of the new pipeline. They too omitted climate change from their decision.

I was proud to be able to stand alongside tomorrow’s leaders. Courageous youth became parties to the litigation and helped arrange the testimony of various climate experts like myself. One of the youth involved in the litigation, Frances Wetherall, summarized her view and told me why she was involved in the case.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. The fact that we burn gasoline in Minnesota derived from the Alberta Tar sands was one of the factors that influenced my wife and I to switch to driving an EV.

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  2. This horrible tar sands oil is expensive and hard to extract, so is dependent on low oil prices continuing, and a friendly american and european market. Looks like a big gamble.

    Canada has become very reliant on oil exports (20% of exports), and the boom bust oil cycle prices affects their currency hurting manufacturing.

    They spend 3 billion a year propping up their oil industry, and the effects of tar sands oil on the local environment, indigenous peoples,  and climate are horrendous and well known.

    Looks like Canada has made a deal with the devil.

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  3. In an essay on coming problems for oil producers, I argued that up-take of electric and hybrid vehicles by 2023-25 was likely to result in reduced demand for oil and its refined products. The essay concluded that, possibly as soon as 2023, demand for oil-based fuels could contract by 2 million bbl/day resulting in a continually growing oil glut as EV sales increased.

    Faced with the disruption of a contracting market, refineries would reduce and eventually cease purchase of those crude oils which were the most difficult and expensive to refine. These are the Extra Heavy and Heavy oils produced by Canada, Venezuela, Indonesia and several other countries.

    Extra Heavy crude are undeniably the most polluting and damaging to the environment but are likely to be the first to cease production, probably by 2023 and will be followed by Heavy crude oil, not because of their damaging effect but for purely commercial reasons.

    Uninformed or ignorant politicians and judges may prolong use of Extra Heavy crude and this should be resisted now but over the next 5 years it is likely to occur anyway. In the meantime it is good to see people like John Abraham and James Hansen call-out those who produce and use these oils.

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  4. Riduna, keep an eye on Norway. They're well ahead of the rest of the world on EV adoption (~50% of new car sales and >5% of total fleet) and in 2017 they saw a corresponding reduction in petroleum fuels usage for the first time.

    Thus, as Norway continues down this road it will likely provide guideposts for how much EV adoption in other countries will be required to reach a given level of petroleum fuel reduction, how quickly that can happen, where any inflection points might occur, etc.

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  5. What absolute tripe. The majority of tar sands production comes from in-situ technologies and is in general no worse than any other oil production mechanism and in the preferred embodiment, is cleaner than other oil production methods. 

    Petcoke can be put to good use such as the CVR refinery in Coffeyville, Kansas does by converting it to ammonia for fertilizer.

    Rather than all the caterwauling why not put your considerable brain power to use to solve carbon emissions. There's plenty of evidence to show that new soil science methods technically can store all anthropogenic emissions in the soil and if implemented widely could reduce atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels within 50 years.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Inflammatory sloganeering snipped. 

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can be rescinded if the posting individual treats adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  6. The only way tar sands will be stopped is if they are made uneconomical by, for instance, the continual reduction of the cost of renewable electricity and the continual uptake of electric vehicles.    At the risk of having my comment removed, we thought that the recent Canadian election would solve the problem.  Sadly no.  We must try again next election.

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  7. Here are my thoughts about the Tar Sands and Kinder Morgan. Please bear in mind that my family has been in the Albertan Oil business since 1930. One of my uncles designed, built, and operated Shell’s Scotford Upgrader. Another uncle ran Mobil Oil’s Atlantic Offshore operation from Norway to Sable Island. Grandpa worked the cable tool rig in Calgary’s Heritage Park. Most of my family still works the oil fields.

    The price for WCS is lower than any other crude because no one wants to buy it.

    Western Canada Select sells at a discount because it is the worst, and most expensive, crude to bring to market:
    it takes massive quantities of natural gas and water to separate the bitumin from the sand. Current estimates suggest that our production uses 1 barrel of crude to produce 4 barrels of crude. The Saudi’s produce 70 barrels of crude for each barrel of input energy;
    it is the worst crude to make a profit because the diluent used to liquify the crude is worth twice as much as the crude;
    it is the worst crude to refine because it needs an upgrader facility just to make it approach normal heavy crude values;
    it needs two pipelines to get to market - one to get the diluted crude to tidewater, and another pipeline to pump the diluent back to the wellhead for reuse;
    it is the most dangerous to move by rail because the diluent used to liquify the crude is explosive;
    it is the worst crude for pollution because it produces huge amounts of CO2, petroleum coke, polluted water, devastated boreal forest, and catastrophic environmental damage when it spills at sea.

    Exxon/Mobil Canadian subsidiary Esso now values its Kearl tar sands operation as WORTHLESS for SEC and accounting purposes. Many other majors (Statoil, Shell, Marathon Oil) have left Fort Mac and won't return as there are many other places that produce oil of much higher quality, for much lower cost.

    The Cowgry oil industry, after quacking for 100 years about the nobility of free enterprise, and the utility of the market, now hope the Gubment and the rest of the country, will shout ‘Mommy’s coming’. This is hysterically funny, and contemptibly hypocritical, but not a rational basis for energy investment or economic development.


    Renewables have dropped dramatically in cost. The same market forces that removed any chance of competitive, unsubsidized energy from coal and nuclear power are now going to peel off the lowest quality crude oils from the market. This process will continue until crude oil is completely replaced as an energy source by natural gas and renewables.

    The future of the Albertan oil fields will be in petrochemicals, not energy. Most of our energy will come from the sustained, high-velocity winds that blow across southern Alberta.

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  8. The development and defence of increased rates of Oil Sands extraction in Alberta are the result of bad excuses developed by bad thinking, thinking that is worse than the kind of thinking that Guy P. Harrison eloquently argues needs to be overcome by increased “Good Thinking” (title of one of his books) increased reality-based, rational, scientific, skeptical, critical thinking. It is more like the thinking of mere children warned about by John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty” when he states that “If society lets a considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences.”

    I say it is worse than thinking that Guy's Good Thinking is intended to overcome which is because of a lack of awareness by the thinker leading them to make poorer choices. It is worse because the motivation for the bad thinking is socioeconomic winners/leaders trying to create popular bad excuses and form carefully crafted misleading messaging to attempt to increase or prolong their ability to unjustifiably and ultimately unsustainably Win.

    That ability of misleading messages to be appealing is similarly not the result of totally unaware recipients of the messages. People liking those messages are also likely allowing their thinking to be motivated by selfish personal interest (the wealthier or more influential the person is in the socioeconomic system, the less likely it is that they are unaware of the unacceptability of what they are choosing to believe, but selfishness can also be a powerful motivator of Bad Thinking among the less aware).

    The bad thinking by winners/leaders, and many others in the population (portion of humanity) they appeal to, can be understood to be an expected result of people growing up (developing their thinking) in a competitive consumer marketing focused socioeconomic system where popularity and profitability are deemed to be the best measures of value or merit, and where appearing to be the winner is all that matters (consideration for others, especially future generations, are excused away). The system naturally develops encouragement for people to try to get away with behaving less responsibly, less ethically, less helpfully, more harmfully.

    The people willing to try to be less ethical will have a competitive advantage as long as they can get away with it. And misleading messages appealing to selfishness motivated bad thinkers increases the chances of winning that way.

    And there are many things that develop to further encourage understandably bad behaviour: Bad Laws, Bad Legal Decisions, Bad Government policy, Bad Business leadership, Bad Consumer behaviour, Bad Thinking being governed by short-term tribal interests in pursuit of obtaining maximum personal benefit any way that can be gotten away with (almost always at the expense of others, and usually with an awareness that their Winning is to the detriment of others).

    In this pipeline case the legal system was developed with rules that legally defend (justify) understandably harmful behaviour (because all interests should be balanced - in favour of current day benefit for the more influential), and can result in legal decisions in defence of understandably bad thinking. Note that the pipeline promoters have had the ability to keep pursuing an understandably Bad Thought as many times as needed to eventually Win, and then likely have that win be defended forevermore, including the related bad thinking that if at any future time the general public becomes more aware of the unacceptability of the win, that future general public will have to be pay the people who pursued personal benefit from that Bad Thinking what those Bad Thinking people claim to have lost (and that future generation will also have almost no ability to extract wealth in the future from the people who may be discovered to have actually illegally obtained their winning in the past).

    Government leaders also exhibit Bad Thinking because of the temporary regional benefits that understandably bad unsustainable economic development will generate, at the expense of other life, especially at the expense of future generations who cannot continue to benefit that way and get nothing but the future trouble that is created. Leaders exhibit bad thinking when they strive to encourage popular support for such activities.

    The currently developed Oil Sands of Alberta are the result of lots of Bad Thinking. And the current day defence/promotion by the current Federal Leaders and many of the Provincial Leaders is near the pinnacle of Bad Thinking. In March of 2017, PM Trudeau stated “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground. The resource will be developed. Our job is to ensure this is done responsibly, safely and sustainably.” That is populist misleading claim-making, done for very Bad Reasons.

    To begin, there is absolutely nothing sustainable about benefiting from burning fossil fuel. The PM cannot rationally claim to misunderstand this point, so, by default, he knows that oil sands extraction is fundamentally unsustainable. Only bad excuses can be made to claim there is anything sustainable about it. And the claim attempts to side-step consideration of the responsibility to safely protect the future generations from the impacts of burning up all that fossil fuel (those responsibility and safety considerations actually being contrary to the stated objective of the current generation benefiting from all of the oil sands being burned up). And that undeniably unacceptable Bad Thinking is made more appealing by explaining that money from the burning up of the oil sands will pay for things like education, health care and assistance to the poor.

    Those claims of the benefits obtained from promoting and defending this activity never explain what happens in the future when no one can practically benefit from fossil fuel burning. And they completely ignore the future challenges and costs that will have been developed, often poorly excused by claiming that growing the GDP today by pursuing unsustainable harmful activity will result in sustained growth of GDP into the future (perhaps by counting the future human efforts to deal with the results of rapid climate change to be 'counted as beneficial economic activity', just as nation rebuilding after wars is a great economic boost, on top of the war-time boost of weapons and war machine production).

    In their defence, many elected leaders are powerfully motivated to get revenue from things like the oil sands because 'lower taxes' is the law (or at least it is so popular it might as well be a law). Their focus on current day revenue can ignore what will happen in the future, because a powerful Bad Thinking portion of the population 'likes that type of leadership - leadership incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives (as JS Mill would refer to it)'.

    And there is more of that type of popular profitable Bad Thinking by Leaders regarding the Oil Sands of Alberta. It is estimated that the current developed Oil Sands have a clean-up obligation that is greater than $20 billion dollars. And bad laws created by bad thinking leaders wanting to encourage the development of the oil sands do not require oil sands operations to fully fund their clean up until decades into the future (coal operators have to provide funds for the full clean-up from the day they start a mine).

    As things like Better Helpful Thinking are developing globally, there may not be decades of revenue from the oil sands, in spite of the glowing evaluations of the future for the oil sands by groups that have a vested interest in prolonging the unjustified popular support for the oil sands. If more oil sands is not sold soon, the near future general population of Alberta and Canada will have nobody who benefited most being obliged to properly clean it up, all that wealth created in the past being worthless/useless in the future.

    And all of this started in the 1990s when Bad Selfish Motives ruled and fuelled the development of more Bad Thinking among leaders/winners in business and politics and in the general regional/tribal population. At that time the unacceptability of the global burning of fossil fuels was well understood by all leaders in business and politics. Yet badly motivated bad thinking prevailed.

    And here we are today, having to try to limit/correct the mess developed by Bad Motives being allowed to develop Bad Thinking and the related Bad Excuse Making that is popular among the Badly Motivated self-interested Bad Thinkers.

    'People having more freedom to believe what they want in pursuit of their personal interest to appear to be the winners in competitions for popularity and profitability' will undeniably develop more Bad Thinking, likely worse than the Bad Thinking that developed and still attempts to defend the Alberta Oil Sands problem.

    I will close with a quote from the 1987 UN Report "Our Common Future" that accurately captured the bad thinking that has developed the oil sands problem. Note that 1987 predates the bad thinking of the 1990s that pushed for expanding oil sands extraction.

    "25. Many present efforts to guard and maintain human progress, to meet human needs, and to realize human ambitions are simply unsustainable - in both the rich and poor nations. They draw too heavily, too quickly, on already overdrawn environmental resource accounts to be affordable far into the future without bankrupting those accounts. They may show profit on the balance sheets of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses. We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.
    26. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations. Most of today's decision makers will be dead before the planet feels; the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion, or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of the young voters of today will still be alive. In the Commission's hearings it was the young, those who have the most to lose, who were the harshest critics of the planet's present management."

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  9. An additional Bad Thinking related to the push to export diluted bitumen rather than upgrade the bitumen into oil or refine it into end products ready to burn is the attempt to 'reduce the appearance of Canada's GHG impacts'.

    By doing the least possible before exporting the product, the GHGs generated in Canada are lowest, allowing Leaders in Canada to make more misleading claims about how "Good Canada is on GHGs".

    I reluctantly agree that the less fortunate should be allowed to benefit from the burning of fossil fuels as a brief transition to sustainable better living. But in many cases the best assistance for the less fortunate is to completely by-pass the fossil fuel burning stage, going straight to decentralized renewable energy production with an interconnecting grid as backup supply in cases where the renewables temporarily suffer a regional failure to meet the needs.

    That means that already more fortunate people should no longer be allowed to benefit.

    As a step towards that correction, perhaps the International community needs to start counting 'all of the GHGs that will be generated by fossil fuels exported by nations with per-capita GDP that is higher than the global average' as part the GHGs generated by that more fortunate exporting nation, as well as in the end user nations. That will double count some GHGs, but the intent is to limit the pursuit of benefit by already more fortunate people, and the double counting is a way to shed a brighter light on undeserving bad thinking alreday more fortunate pursuers of more benefit from fossil fuel burning.

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