‘Shut down the oil sands’ is not an extreme position


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Rather, it is the endpoint of joined-up thinking about climate science and energy policy.

On Twitter the other day, Suzy Waldman said: “Trying to envision middle ground between idea coalsands ought 2b shuttered and idea Canada’s economic fate depends on them”.

I think this perspective risks perpetuating one of the big problems in Canadian climate and energy politics – namely, the assumption that the oil sands have a legitimate future part to play in Canada’s economy and that any position that questions that is ‘extreme’ and outside the political middle ground. This may be true in terms of opinion polls and the positions of politicians, but this is because people haven’t really accepted that our current trajectory ends with planetary catastrophe.

We now have very clear and credible evidence that warming the planet by more than 2°C virtually guarantees big trouble for humanity. Crossing that threshold can be achieved by burning a fraction of the conventional oil, gas, and coal available on the planet. In short, then, we have a dangerous amount of fossil fuel available without even tapping unconventional sources like the oil sands.

Stabilizing the climate at any level of temperature increase means cutting greenhouse gas pollution to the point where the amount produced each year is absorbed by natural systems and so there is no net change in the concentration. Achieving that requires very deep cuts – essentially, the global phaseout of fossil fuel use. Stabilizing below the 2°C limit requires that all this happen extremely quickly. In such a world, it simply makes no sense to be building bitumen mining and in situ extraction facilities intended to operate for decades. Nor does it make sense to keep building pipelines to export fuels that we cannot afford to burn, if we wish to maintain a livable planet capable of sustaining human prosperity indefinitely.

This connects to the biggest problem with the oil sands: the way in which they contribute to a vicious cycle. We build more fossil fuel production capacity, so naturally we need to have transport and export capacity to serve it. The availability of fossil fuels then encourages people to keep investing in vehicles, power plants, and other facilities and equipment that require them. And so fossil fuel dependence is perpetuated.

If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to rapidly reverse that cycle. We need to be shutting down production capacity, and transport capacity, and facilities and equipment that depend on fossil fuels. That will probably make some things a lot more expensive and change the ways in which people live, but the alternative of a planet with a permanently hostile climate is clearly much worse.

Shutting down the oil sands is an extreme idea politically in Canada, but that is simply evidence of how poor the scientific basis for Canada’s energy politics is.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

anon August 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm

There’s also a political side to the vicious circle. The bigger the tarsands industry gets, the more taxes it contributes and the more influential it becomes with politicians. That means the more it grows the harder it becomes to shut down.

. August 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Not only has Canada failed to enact effective climate policies, it has given a green light to triple tar sands production by 2030 which will lead to a significant growth in greenhouse gas emissions.


. August 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm

This provides a comprehensive assessment of current and potential future impacts based on approved projects as well as growth projections.


alena August 3, 2013 at 11:00 am

I believe that even the oil companies are cognizant of the futility of tarsands exploration. That is not going to stop them from doing so as the addiction to oil and demand for it is so high. Jobs and wealth are also a powerful lure. As you said earlier,tobacco companies knew for a long time that smoking was harmful, but that did not stop them from pushing their product on an addicted population. In the end, the industry collapsed as will the fossil fuel industry. Hopefully, some form of clean energy will be discovered/invented by young minds today.

Milan August 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm

In some ways tobacco companies are an encouraging precedent.

At the same time, they are still worth billions of dollars, many millions of people around the world smoke, the rate of smoking is rising in many countries, and tobacco remains one of the most common killers of human beings.

If we are to be successful in addressing climate change, fossil fuel companies will need to be shrunk down a lot more than tobacco companies have been so far.

Suzy Waldman August 7, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Hi Milan,

Thanks for the blog post. I agree with you in principle. However, Canada’s West as well as Canada’s coffers in general are highly dependent on oil revenue, and the oilsands is our greatest untapped oil source. We should not underestimate how contentious the process is going to be of shifting off of this dependence. You can’t shut off the economic tap of almost half the country without a bitter struggle. Still, we have to start somewhere. I think the right place to begin is with a carbon tax that will shift some revenue towards economic diversification as well as decarbonization innovations to mitigate the oilsands` negative impacts. A carbon tax would also give notice to the oilsands and to the rest of the world that Canada is aligning with the rest of the world in terms of taking action against carbon.

Milan August 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm

I agree that it will be contentious, but it is nonetheless urgent and necessary.

We are on track to commit ourselves to more than 2˚C of warming within 15 years. If we are to avoid that, mitigation will need to be very aggressive, especially in countries like Canada with excessively high per-capita emissions.

Given that, we should be at the stage of shutting down oil sands projects and pipelines, not building brand new ones.

A carbon tax is a good idea, but it needs to be set at a level where we will see the sort of aggressive transition that is necessary.

. August 13, 2013 at 11:00 am

We should not be building new coal mines, oilsands plants, oil pipelines and coal ports unless the users of these fuels capture and store the carbon pollution (which is technically feasible).

The obvious necessity is to stop expanding carbon polluting infrastructure while using trade pressure and diplomacy to work with like-minded jurisdictions in preventing this expansion in all countries. We won’t convince the Chinese to burn less oil and coal if we’re trying to sell them more and burning more ourselves. Difficult as this global task is, there is no other way to prevent the harm scientists predict, some of which is already happening.

He would also not be surprised by the litany of false rationalizations used by the promoters of carbon pollution. They tell us “we’re not going to stop using gasoline tomorrow.” In fact, we need to start phasing out the burning of gasoline today so that we won’t be using it in 30 years. Expanding oil infrastructure goes in the wrong direction. Instead, we should be regulating or pricing carbon pollution and using other vehicle and fuel policies to gradually convert our transportation system to some combination of zero-emission electricity and biofuels. And corporations like Enbridge, if they truly had our children’s interests in mind, would be leading the charge in calling for these policies and promoting non-polluting options.

Another false argument is that we need the jobs and tax revenue from oil pipelines and other carbon polluting projects. But should we accept the idea that we can only create a wealth-producing economy in the short-term by destroying our environment and economy in the long-term? Humans have an enormous capacity to generate economic well-being, some of it based on extraction of natural resources in ways that don’t lead to carbon pollution, much of it based on the non-extractive ingenuity unleashed by market economies.


. October 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Oilsands emissions, the fastest growing source of carbon pollution in Canada, are projected to rise from an estimated 34 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2005 to 101 million tonnes in 2020. Apart from Alberta (295 megatonnes) and Ontario (177 megatonnes), no province or territory is projected to have a higher level of emissions than the oilsands sector in 2020, with Quebec coming the closest at 81 megatonnes for that year, followed by Saskatchewan at 74 megatonnes and British Columbia at 64 megatonnes.

. October 13, 2017 at 2:32 pm

The question now is around the future of the resource. Despite prognostications of doom, there are many factors that keep the oilsands in the game. Hundreds of billions of dollars have already been spent to bring online what’s expected to be nearly three million barrels a day of production in 2018.

As well, oilsands production, once started, remains relatively stable for decades. It would take an even sharper drop in oil prices than we have seen in recent years for producers to shut in their production.

“I do think that many of these assets have been built for 20- or a 40-year life, and I think they will produce to the end of their useful lives, said Jackie Forrest, director of research at the Arc Energy Research Institute. “The oilsands represents about three per cent of global supply. It’s a major component of the oil market today and will continue to be so for a long time.”


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