Expanding Tar Sands Will Kill Paris Targets and Climate Stability, Report Finds

January 25, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Canada can’t increase tar sands production or build more pipelines if the world is to achieve the targets on global carbon emissions set by the Paris Agreement on climate.

That’s the central conclusion of a new report by Oil Change International(OCI), a U.S. research and advocacy group dedicated to exposing the full costs of fossil fuel extraction.

“There is no scenario in which tar sands production increases and the world achieves the Paris goals,” says the report.

Along with 176 other nations, Canada pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 with the goal of limiting global temperatures to a two degree Celsius increase.

“For all Prime Minister Trudeau’s positive diplomacy in Paris, if he approves a pipeline, he will be the one to make the goals impossible to reach,” says the report.

The problem, explains the report, is not just bitumen’s high carbon footprint (about 17 per cent more than conventional oil) but that pipelines drive bitumen expansion and that high-cost tar sands mining projects can last for 50 years.

The majority of Canada’s oil exports consist of raw bitumen, a cheap refinery feedstock, which is then upgraded at U.S. refineries for local consumption or export.

“Eighty per cent of the climate impact of tar sands oil,” says the report, “comes from releasing carbon wherever the fuel is burned — thus the most important impact of tar sands expansion is global.”

But the unrestricted approval of pipeline projects such as Trans Mountain and Line 3 could drive the expansion of bitumen production by nearly two million barrels a day over the next two decades, says the report. Current oil sands production is 2.5 million barrels a day and accounts for 60 per cent of Canada’s oil production.

That means that Canada could be adding more new oil production to global markets than Brazil and Libya combined.

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From “Climate on the Line: Why New Tar Sands Pipelines Are Incompatible With the Paris Goals.” Oil Change International, 2016.

As a result, emissions from Canadian oil could eventually gobble up 16 per cent of the world’s total carbon budget if it is to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degree Celsius, or seven per cent of the two degree Celsius global carbon budget, the report found.

“Without action, Canada could become one of the fastest growing extractors of new carbon pollution over the next 20 years through the expansion of long-lived tar sands production,” adds the report.

The report follows an announcement by U.S. NASA scientists that 2016 was the third hottest year on record since 1880.

“Globally-averaged temperatures in 2016 were 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit (0.99 degrees Celsius) warmer than the mid-20th century mean,” reported the scientists.

This warming trend plus poor fire planning played a critical role in the extreme boreal forest fire that devastated parts of the bitumen mining community of Fort McMurray last spring, causing more than $9 billion in damages. The fire is still smoldering away in peat bogs.

Around the globe, weather-related catastrophes, many driven by climate change, racked up $210 billion in damages in 2016, or the sixth highest on record for the beleaguered insurance industry.

Since the late 19th century, the burning of fossil fuels has raised the planet’s average surface temperature by two degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius). It has also begun to acidify the northern and southern parts of the world’s oceans, a major carbon sink.

The Earth’s temperature now ranges close to what creatures experienced 120,000 years ago in the Eemian period when sea levels rose 30 to 40 feet higher than current levels.

Climate scientist James Hansen recently warned in a Rolling Stone interview that if governments pursue business as usual, “young people will have to figure out how to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or figure out how to live on a radically different planet.”

The Paris Agreement proposes to prevent warming from increasing beyond an additional two degrees Celsius — a goal Hansen regards as a poor if not inadequate target because it probably can’t prevent runaway global warming.

The target proposes that global emissions must be halved within little more than 20 years, or an average reduction of three per cent a year.

To keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal many scientists now consider impossible, emissions must be halved in about 15 years.

“If Canada proceeds with its oil expansion plans, it could prevent the world from achieving” the modest Paris targets, says the report.

“The economics of capital-intensive infrastructure projects is such that they lock in production over their lifetimes — this could lead to Canadian tar sands still polluting in 2060 or 2070, when global emissions need to reach zero.”

But reducing carbon emissions in market economies dependent on the export of fossil fuels has been fraught with political and economic difficulties. Such policies have also encountered sustained opposition from oil and gas lobbies.

For two decades Liberal and Conservative governments in Canada promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have spent billions of dollars on various programs that set targets for reducing atmospheric warming gases.

But to date, every single federal program has failed to meet its target. The tar sands represents Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases.

British Columbian energy economist Mark Jaccard has repeatedly noted“Information and incitation campaigns, labels on fridges and cars, a few subsidies to energy efficiency and wind turbines, and a host of Rick Mercer commercials will not really reduce emissions.”

Research by Canadian energy analyst David Hughes has shown that no new pipelines are needed, and that even with Alberta’s generous tar sands emissions cap, Canada’s oil and gas sector could easily command 53 per cent of Canada’s carbon emissions by 2030.

To meet the Paris targets, Canada would have to dramatically shrink economic activity in every sector in order to make room for carbon increases from the oil and gas industry if the country doesn’t claw back bitumen production.

“Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada could realistically meet its Paris commitments without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development,” wrote Hughes.

According to Jeff Rubin, former chief economist for the CIBC, the key issue still facing Canada’s bitumen producers remains the collapse in global oil prices. Most current steam plant projects, which produce the majority of bitumen, require “prices of US$65 per barrel to break even, while new projects can require prices as high as US$80 to $US100 a barrel.”

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From “Climate on the Line: Why New Tar Sands Pipelines Are Incompatible With the Paris Goals.” Oil Change International, 2016.

The Oil Change International report also echoed the concern that growing bitumen production while shrinking other parts of the economy “raises serious questions of interprovincial and intersectoral fairness within Canada.”

The report says that only way forward is to stop all new fossil fuel developments and begin “a carefully managed decline of the fossil fuel industry towards an economy powered by clean energy.”

(Many analysts have noted that the term “clean energy” is an inaccurate cliché because all renewable forms of energy are dependent on fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance.)

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested in a town hall meeting that “We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels.

“That is going to take time. And in the meantime, we have to manage that transition.”

Yet the OCI report warns that “new tar sands extraction projects and pipelines will have to be shut down long before they have reached their intended lifespans, wasting billions of dollars of investment capital and jeopardising the economy” in order to prevent climate chaos and economic collapse.

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: Canadian tar sands production, environmental effects of tar sands, Paris Climate Agreement