Coal far worse on climate than oil sands: report

Author: Northern Gateway
Dated: 22 February 2012

The graphic above was created by the report authors, Swart and Weaver, and is made available on this webpage.

The oil sands shouldn’t be the energy pariah they’ve been made out to be – at least that’s the conclusion of a couple of B.C. climatologists in a recent study.

Andrew Weaver, a professor at the University of Victoria, took a look at carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of Canada’s oil sands reserves and those of coal.

Weaver, and colleague Neil Swart, essentially asked the question of how much global warming would occur by burning a variety of fossil fuel resources. Here are their calculations.

  • Oil sands under active development: would add 0.01°C to world temperatures.
  • Economically-viable oil sands reserve: would add 0.03°C to world temperatures.
  • Total unconventional natural gas resource base: would add 2.86°C to world temperatures
  • Total coal resource base: would add 14.8°C to world temperatures

In other words: Coal presents a climate challenge 1,500 times greater than that presented by the oil sands.

Weaver and Swart certainly gained some attention in the media and in social media circles as more experts are beginning to take issue with environmentalists’ doomsday dogma that the pursuit of the oil sands resource is akin to charting a course to global climate change Armageddon.

Weaver and Swart do issue warnings that unmeasured pursuit of fossil fuels as our primary source of energy isn’t a competent response to climate change.

But certainly their study does bring a measure of context to the debate that shouldn’t be restricted to in-situ drilling, upgraders and pipelines.

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  • Jeremy, Jun 21st, 2012 (2 years ago)

    Later on in this report mentioned above, Swart goes on to say (full disclosure of the 'warning'):

    "In general, building new large-scale infrastructure which commits society to long-term fossil-fuel usage is not consistent with keeping warming below 2°C, regardless of the particular fossil-fuel resource4. To prevent warming exceeding that limit, there will have to be a rapid, large scale transition to renewable energy sources. Indeed, if growing global energy demands are instead met using fossil fuels, the level of carbon footprints and the associated warming could be massive3. In general, a +4°C world is quite possible this century. So society faces a clear choice: a) continued fossil fuel-usage and large scale warming or b) transition towards renewable energy to stabilize the climate."

    This seems to counter the argument to drastically increase oil extraction in the oil sands and build this new pipeline. Having had the privilege of sitting in on a few of Dr. Weaver's lectures, I would be very interested to hear what he thinks of your interpretation. I think the graph shows the enormous impact the Alberta oil sands are having. All of the other fossil fuel sources are based on global consumption.

    As mentioned in the report, the Copenhagen accord strives to mitigate 'catastrophic' climate change by not exceeding a 2 degree increase in temperature from pre-industrial records. Swart and Weaver clearly state that this will be incredibly difficult to achieve with the current acceleration of development in the Alberta oil sands.

  • Northern Gateway, Mar 02nd, 2012 (3 years ago)

    Hi Mark, thanks for your comment.

    The blog post above was written to highlight the recent study authored by Swart and Weaver and published by Nature Climate Change. Swart and Weaver are best able to answer specific questions about their methodology. As far as we are aware, individual oil infrastructure projects like Northern Gateway, were not studied in depth within their analysis. It appears as though they took a high-level approach to arrive at their findings.

    Please note, the pipeline does not go through the Great Bear Rainforest. The marine operations would pass by areas that environmental advocacy groups have labeled as the Great Bear Rainforest, but the pipeline terminal ends in Kitimat, over 20 kilometers east of where advocacy group maps suggest a "boundary" for the GBR would begin. It's also important to note that the Northern Gateway route was selected to take advantage of existing disturbed forests (cut blocks and forest service roads) created by the logging and forestry industry. We chose this route to minimize the impact on the environment. There are actually very few segments where we need to create right-of-way through ‘undisturbed’ forest. Minimizing impact to the environment is one of the first considerations Enbridge takes into account when planning pipeline routes.

    For more information about the Northern Gateway route planning process, please watch this video:

  • Mark in Edmonton, Mar 02nd, 2012 (3 years ago)

    All in all great research from (Swart and Weaver, 2012) however in the long run climate change is also affected by photosynthetic organisms. If we look at the development of a pipeline into the area of Kitimat BC, located on the coastline of one of the most productive areas for green algal growth (primary producers that convert CO2 (a predominant greenhouse gas), water, and light to O2 and a reduced carbohydrate) in the world during an algal bloom, an oil spill or leak would be absolutely detrimental to the production of this algae. Algae is the major contributor to primary production in our oceans which cover approximately 70% of earth's surface. The photic zone (the area to which light can penetrate) in the ocean ranges from 10-100m from the top of the surface depending on the clarity of the ocean. In the case of an oil leak or spill, algae in this area would be seriously affected by not only the change in the waters composition but also the alteration of the photic zone as the suns rays could not penetrate as deeply through oil as they are able to through water. I am curious as to whether this issue has been included into the work done by (Swart and Weaver, 2012) not to mention the flora (also primary producers that remove CO2 from the environment) that would be cleared to make room for the pipeline itself, going through many delicate areas including the Great Bear Rainforest. I commend Swart and Weaver, 2012 on their research and understand the economic opportunity behind this project but would also like to see if "the bigger picture" has been taken into account.

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