Dealing with the oil sands is not enough

An intelligent article in The Calgary Herald makes the case that dealing with the oil sands is not a sufficient Canadian contribution to climate change mitigation. Firstly, this is because they represent a small fraction of total Canadian emissions and, even in the worst-case projections, are still a minority of emissions in a few decades. Secondly, it is because technologies developed to de-carbonize the oil sands are likely to be less generally applicable than those created for more widespread industrial activities. Thirdly, it is because many of the emissions associated with the oil sands occur wherever the fuels being produced are burned, rather than at the point of production, where they might be captured.The second point is an interesting one, and the overall case is strong:

The oilsands now produce about four per cent of Canada’s emissions; if production were to triple with no change in technology and all other emissions stopped growing, they could be as high as 10 to 15 per cent around 2025.

This is a big number, and it’s going in the wrong direction since if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we should be driving our emissions to zero sometime soon after 2050. However, even if we shut down all oilsands operations tomorrow, Canada would still be one of the top greenhouse gas emitters’ per capita in the world. Fixing the oilsands will not get us off the hook.

While I think the authors are somewhat overconfident in the applicability of carbon capture and storage (CCS), they are right to say that dealing with the oil sands must be only one part of Canada’s overall climate change strategy.

In addition, we need to prevent the construction of new coal power plants (at the very least, those without effective CCS) and phase out those that already exist. We need to seek and exploit mitigation opportunities in all sectors – from agriculture to transport to heavy industry – with the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. One important mechanism for creating the right incentives for lowest-cost across-the-board reductions is putting a price on carbon. That is not, however, sufficient to address all the externalities relating to climate change. Government also needs to work to improve standards and build intelligent infrastructure, supporting the choices that will lead to the emergence of a low-carbon society.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “Dealing with the oil sands is not enough”

  1. Canada’s black gold oil rush
    By Sarah Shenker
    BBC News, Calgary

    As the massive yellow truck approaches the digger, it manoeuvres into position and honks its horn, signalling its readiness to receive a payload of 400 tonnes of black, oily sand.

    Canada’s ‘dirty oil’ challenge
    By Sarah Shenker
    BBC News, Fort McMurray, Alberta

    In April this year, about 500 migrating ducks on their way north landed in what looked like a large lake in western Canada.

    It was not a lake, but a tailings pond – a store for toxic waste from the oil sands extraction process, made up of water, clay, sand, residual bitumen and heavy metals.

    Most of the ducks died, killed by the slick of oil on the water’s surface.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *