In an editorial that is reasonably good overall, The Globe and Mail is nonetheless too quick to assume that the oil sands are good for Canada: “A vital resource, the oil sands, are an economic advantage to Canada, indeed to North America as a whole. Sixty per cent of our natural gas is exported, and Canada is the U.S.’s largest source of crude oil. The fruits of emissions here are often enjoyed elsewhere” and that fossil fuels “remain vital assets that will serve as reliable sources of energy for the foreseeable future.” They also claim that: “Products from the oil sands are necessary and desirable.”
I have argued before that, when all the associated costs are taken into consideration, the oil sands may be net destroyers of human wealth and welfare. The most important of these costs is the degree to which extracting, processing, and burning fuels produced from the oil sands increases the risk of catastrophic climate change. If we use a very high but possible estimate for how sensitive the climate system is to greenhouse gas emissions (8Â°C of warming for each doubling of CO2 concentrations), burning the 1.7 trillion barrels of oil estimated to exist in the oil sands would alone be sufficient to increase mean global temperatures by 2Â°C. Even using the probable estimates of 3.5 – 4.5Â°C of warming, the oil sands represent a contribution to total cumulative human emissions that is seriously out of proportion to Canada’s population, or even the population of those who ultimately consume the fuels produced.
The oil sands represent the last gasp of a fossil fuel powered economy. Either because of hydrocarbon depletion or because of climatic concerns, we are inevitably going to have to give up fossil fuels anyhow. Given what we now know about the climate system and the potential impact humanity could have on it, we should be working on developing zero-carbon sources of energy – not on extracting the oil that is the hardest to reach, or which requires the most processing to be turned into usable fuels or products. Rather than picking at the bones of the fossil fuel carcass, we should be seeking out new forms of sustenance.
The Globe and Mail has a history of assuming that oil sands development is good for Canada. In fact, the best thing we could do for future generations of Canadians (and others around the world) is to leave that dangerous carbon in the ground, while pursuing the development of sustainable forms of energy.