Posts Tagged ‘northern gateway’

At public hearings on the environmental impacts of proposed oil pipelines, Canadians are no longer allowed to discuss climate change: any testimonials concerning how the oil was produced (“upstream effects”) and what will happen when it is burned (“downstream effects”) are considered inadmissible. This new policy was part of a 2012 omnibus bill by the federal government.

So if we refuse to consider the risks, they don’t exist? Or does this government just not care? I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

See the very thoughtful article by Andy Skuce, a geologist who formerly worked in the Alberta oil sands.


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The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:


Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.

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The term “fossil fuels” is a very large umbrella. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the usual distinctions, but there’s also unconventional oil (such as the Alberta tar sands) and unconventional gas (such as shale gas from fracking). “Unconventional” means that the fuel is produced in a roundabout way that’s less efficient and takes more energy than regular fuel. For example, oil in northern Alberta is mixed with sand and tar that’s difficult to remove. As global supplies of conventional oil and gas decline, unconventional fuels are making up a growing segment of the petroleum market.

The different types of fossil fuels are present in different amounts in the ground. Also, for each unit of energy we get from burning them, they will release different amounts of carbon emissions. Given these variables, here’s an interesting question: how much global warming would each type of fuel cause if we burned every last bit of it?

A few weeks ago, a new study addressed this question in one of the world’s top scientific journals. Neil Swart, a Ph.D. student from the University of Victoria, as well as his supervisor Andrew Weaver, one of Canada’s top climate scientists, used existing data to quantify the warming potential for each kind of fossil fuel. Observations show the relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change to be approximately linear, so they didn’t need to use a climate model – a back-of-the-envelope calculation was sufficient. Also, since both of the authors are Canadian, they were particularly interested in how burning the Alberta tar sands would contribute to global warming.

Swart and Weaver calculated that, if we burned every last drop of the tar sands, the planet would warm by about 0.36°C. This is about half of the warming that’s been observed so far. If we only burned the parts of the tar sands proven to be economically viable, that number drops to 0.03°C. If we don’t expand drilling any further, and stick to the wells that already exist, the world would only warm by 0.01°C, which is virtually undetectable.

Conventional oil and natural gas would each cause similarly small amounts of warming, if the respective global supplies were burned completely. Unconventional natural gas would cause several times more warming – even though it’s cleaner-burning than coal and oil, there’s a lot of it in the ground.

The real game-changer, though, is coal. If we burned all the coal in the ground, the world would warm by a staggering 15°C. There’s a large uncertainty range around this number, though, because the linear relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change breaks down under super-high emission levels. The warming could be anywhere from 8°C to 25°C. In the context of previous climate changes, it’s hard to overemphasize just how dramatic a double-digit rise in average temperatures would be.

The main reason why the warming potential of coal is so high is because there’s so much of it. The Alberta tar sands are a huge resource base, but they’re tiny in comparison to global coal deposits. Also, coal is more polluting than any kind of oil: if you powered a lightbulb for one hour using coal, you would produce about 30% more CO2 emissions than if you ran it using conventional oil.

The tar sands are more polluting than regular oil, but exactly how much more is a very difficult question to answer. The end product that goes into your car at the gas station is essentially the same, but the refining process takes more energy. You can supply the extra energy in many different ways, though: if you use coal, tar sands become much more polluting than regular oil; if you use renewable energy that doesn’t emit carbon, tar sands are about the same. The authors didn’t include these extra emissions in their study, but they did discuss them in a supplementary document, which estimated that, in an average case, tar sands cause 17% more emissions than regular oil. Taking this into account, the tar sands would cause 0.42°C of warming if they were burned completely, rather than 0.36°C.

Therefore, headlines like “Canada’s oil sands: Not so dirty after all” are misleading. Canada’s oil sands are still very dirty. There just isn’t very much of them. If we decide to go ahead and burn all the tar sands because they only cause a little bit of warming, the same argument could be used for every individual coal plant across the world. Small numbers add up quickly.

The authors still don’t support expansion of the tar sands, or construction of pipelines like the Keystone XL. “While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally,” Andrew Weaver writes, “the tarsands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” Nationally, tar sands are a major climate issue, because they enable our addiction to fossil fuels and create infrastructure that locks us into a future of dirty energy. Also, a myriad of other environmental and social problems are associated with the tar sands – health impacts on nearby First Nations communities, threats to iconic species such as the woodland caribou, and toxic chemicals being released into the air and water.

Tar sands are slightly preferable to coal, but clean energy is hugely preferable to both. In order to keep the climate crisis under control, we need to transition to a clean energy economy as soon as possible. From this viewpoint, further development of the tar sands is a step in the wrong direction.

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A big story in Canada these days is oil pipelines. The federal government wants to ramp up the tar sands industry through international exports. The easiest way to transport crude is through pipelines stretching across the country, and several such projects have been proposed during the past year.

First there was the Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to Texas and provide the United States with oil. Despite enormous pressure to approve the project immediately, American president Obama is refusing to make a decision until a more thorough environmental review can be conducted. This announcement left the Canadian government fuming and stomping off to look for other trading partners.

Now the Northern Gateway pipeline is on the table, which would transport oil across British Columbia to the West Coast, where tankers would transport it to Asia. I don’t personally know anyone who supports this project, and there is organized opposition from many First Nations tribes and environmental groups. Much of the opposition seems to hinge on local environmental impacts, such as oil spills or disruption to wildlife. I think it’s possible, if we’re very careful about it, to build a pipeline that more or less eliminates these risks.

I am still opposed to the Northern Gateway project, though, due to its climate impacts. Tar sands are even more carbon-intensive than regular oil, and there is no way to mitigate their emissions the way we can mitigate their effects on wildlife. I realize that it’s unreasonable to shut down the entire industry, but expanding it to massive new markets such as Asia is a mistake that my generation will have to pay for. The short-term economic benefits of building a pipeline will be overwhelmed by the long-term financial costs and human suffering due to the climate change it causes. My country is pushing the world down a path towards a worst-case climate scenario, and it makes me ashamed to call myself a Canadian.

According to our Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, anyone who opposes the pipeline is “threaten[ing] to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”. Apparently, the goal of people like me is to ensure there is “no forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams”. Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to agree, as he plans to change the public consultation process for such projects so they can’t get “hijacked” by opponents.

In case anyone needs this spelled out, I am not a radical ideologue. I am a fan of capitalism. I vote for mainstream political parties. Among 19-year-old females, it doesn’t get much more moderate than me.

I have no problem with forestry, mining, and hydro, as long as they are conducted carefully and sustainably. It’s the oil and gas I have trouble with, and that’s due to my education in climate science, a field which developed out of very conservative disciplines such as physics and applied math.

I can’t understand why Joe Oliver thinks that referring to First Nations as a “radical group” is acceptable. I also fail to see the logic in shutting down opposition to a matter of public policy in a democratic society.

If Canada’s economy, one of the most stable in the world throughout the recent recession, really needs such a boost, let’s not do it through an unethical and unsustainable industry. How about, instead of building pipelines, we build a massive grid of low-carbon energy sources? That would create at least as many jobs, and would improve the future rather than detract from it. Between wind power in Ontario, tidal power in the Maritimes, hydroelectric power throughout the boreal forest, and even uranium mining in Saskatchewan, the opportunities are in no short supply. Despite what the government might tell us, pipelines are not our only option.

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