Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It's the Tar Sands, Stupid


You can't practice abstinence while running a brothel. Yet politicians of almost all stripes talk simultaneously about developing the Alberta oil sands while getting serous about reducing carbon emissions. Sound like a crock? It is.

Beyond arcane terms like "emissions trading" and "carbon credits," climate change is actually very simple: Every time we extract ancient carbon out of the ground and burn it we are making climate change worse. The more you burn, the worse it gets.

Bearing in mind that simple truth, how much extractable oil is in the Alberta oil sands? That is one area where industry and environmentalists agree. It's a lot -- about 175 billion barrels. That is second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Beyond this massive storehouse of ancient carbon, the additional problem with the oil sands is that is takes a colossal amount of energy to extract and refine the extremely low-grade tar deposits that cover more than 20 per cent of the Alberta landmass.

The oil sands are mostly rock and sand -- only 12 per cent is bitumen. This tar must then be upgraded at enormous energy cost to synthetic crude. That process consumes about 700 million cubic feet of natural gas each day -- enough to heat over 3.7 million Canadian homes. That massive waste of finite and comparatively clean natural gas is expected to triple in the next eight years.

Of course there is no point in creating synthetic crude oil unless you are eventually going to burn it -- that is what the oil business is all about. These "downstream" emissions are four times as great as the carbon released during oil sands production.

How Alberta will cook us

Doing the math a rather stark picture emerges. The average production and downstream emissions of Alberta synthetic crude add up to around 638 kg of carbon per barrel. Multiply that by the total extractable oil reserves and you get a rather large number.

When all the Alberta oil sands have been extracted, upgraded and burned, they will result in the release into the Earth's atmosphere of around 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

The planet's atmosphere is a finite system. It currently contains about 3000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide -- about 35 per cent above pre-industrial levels. If all the carbon from the development of the oil sands were released at once it would single handedly increase atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from the current level of 384 ppm to 400 ppm.

Some scientists believe that there is a one in five chance that a carbon level of 400 ppm this century would lead to catastrophic changes. In fact we are on track to reach that milestone by 2015. The oil sands alone would put us beyond that potential tipping point.

Of course, none of this cuts much ice with either politicians or the public. There is an oil boom going on in Alberta -- end of story. Even here in Canada, there seems to be almost no discussion about the eventual need to leave this dangerous substance in the ground.

Runaway mega-project

Consider this thought experiment: imagine the political likelihood of any government in Ottawa attempting to shut down of the oil sands. Recall what happened when Trudeau brought in the comparatively mild National Energy Program in the 1980s. Thirty-seven years later, Albertans have neither forgotten nor forgiven that perceived transgression into their sacrosanct industry.

Nor would the U.S. be indifferent if Canada presumed to leave our own oil reserves in the ground. In fact, George Bush committed in his 2006 state of the union address to end his country's addiction to Mideast oil. What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the shortfall was to be made up by Canadian oil from the oil sands -- now deemed to be a national security objective of the U.S. government.

That same week in January 2006, Stephen Harper helpfully committed Canada to a five-fold increase in oil sands production during secret meetings held in Houston, Texas, between U.S., Canadian and industry representatives immediately after he took office.

Then there is a small matter of money. While oil companies love to whine about their onerous taxes, the fact is that they are now making astronomical profits. The break-even production costs of the oil sands are about $28 a barrel. World oil prices are now close to $100 a barrel. Royalties to the government are as low as 1 per cent and a new regime will not come in until 2009. Not a bad gig.

Assuming the oil remains at only $100 a barrel for the next few decades (highly unlikely), oil companies can expect to reap more than $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the oil sands. The oil industry is already the largest industrial sector the world has ever seen -- worth more than $8 trillion in sales annually. That is almost five times larger than the next biggest industry: cars.

Bogging down Bali

Keep all that in mind when Stephen Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on. One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper's position as "a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens."

All this is a good example of how far political and public discourse has to go to deal meaningfully with this planetary emergency. Try to imagine some future reality where we collectively commit standing armies to known oil reserves -- not to facilitate their extraction -- but to ensure that it never is. That is what it might eventually take to prevent global catastrophe.

Given the pell mell development of the Alberta oil sands, we instead have a very good idea of how much and how fast the world's fossil fuel deposits will be extracted and burned -- all of it, and as fast as possible.

The chemistry of the atmosphere doesn't care what disingenuous political posturing happens this week in Bali. Climate change is very simple. The more you burn, the worse it gets. We ignore that simple truth at our peril.


carey said...

Hey, Kirk. Cheney seems upset and is going around bashing Pelosi and the Democratic Congress.

What possibly could have set him off?


carey said...

Naturally, I forgot to mention, excellent intro posts.

This a.m. I cannot stop snickering at Dick-boy.

carey said...

His snarl crawls up his face when he's hopping mad.

Gerald said...

The Vile -Man and His Policies

Gerald said...


1. the tax code that has become hideously biased in favor of the rich;

2. a national debt that will probably have grown 70 percent by the time this president leaves Washington;

3. a swelling cascade of mortgage defaults; a record near-$850 billion trade deficit;

4. oil prices that are higher than they have ever been;

Gerald said...

Bus's Reaction to NIE

Gerald said...

President Bush today is telling Iran to "come clean"- when he's nose deep in what comes out of the hind end of a Texas Longhorn.

Our commander-in-chief is so fanatical for war against Iran that, as investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote earlier this year in The New Yorker, there's a special planning group under the Joint Chiefs of Staff organized to plot one. Hersh quotes a former intelligence official stating the group is "charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented upon orders from the President, within 24 hours."-

Gerald said...

The eyes of a madman

Gerald said...

Hunters know all too well the look that spilled out of our television sets like political diarrhea Tuesday: The look of a cornered animal, the most dangerous time to face a desperate predator.

You saw it in the eyes of George W. Bush, America's too-often discredited President, caught in yet another lie.

Faced with a damning National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that destroyed his outlandish claims of a threat of World War III from Iran, Bush did what he always does - dug in and faced down his pursuers with bluster, anger and defiance.

But I watched his eyes as they darted back and forth during his press conference at the White House. As a hunter, I've seen that look before - at the moment I've faced a hunted animal and must make the decision to kill or be killed.

The George W. Bush that faced reporters and the television cameras Tuesday was a cornered, dangerous predator, determined to fight back until the bitter end even as time, and escape routes, run out.

Time may be running out for Bush's Presidency but America's most discredited and distrusted leader still has more than a year left in office and that is too much time given his long, sordid record of high crimes against the Constitution, the American people, and the world.

George W. Bush is no less than a traitor to his country. He is a man without honor, a leader without conscience and a human being without a shred of decency or humanity. He is a despot who considers himself above the law and a President who considers the Constitution he swore to uphold to be just "a goddamned piece of paper."

Yes, I know, no one has come forward publicly to confirm that meeting in 2005 where we reported Bush uttered those words but I trust the people who gave me the information and no one in the White House, Congress or the Republican Party has denied or publicly disputed the story. I believe he said it and I believe his actions have proven, many times over, that he holds that level of disrespect for the document upon which this nation was founded.

Bush is, I believe, a war criminal, a leader who invaded a nation that posed no immediate threat to the United States and lied to Congress, the American people and the world community to justify his illegal and immoral actions.

War criminals are, first and foremost, mass murderers and Bush's reprehensible actions have resulted in the deaths of not only close to 3,900 American men and women in uniform but also in thousands upon thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

His actions have killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden, damaged our relations with allies and destroyed our credibility at home and abroad.
He wants, more than anything, to invade Iran before his term is up. Even now, with his ludicrous claims of a nuclear threat from that nation destroyed by his own intelligence community, he sticks to his saber-rattling rhetoric.


Gerald said...


Gerald said...

NIEs:Waste of Time

Gerald said...

Is Hillary's Campaign Unraveling?

Hillary, don't give up your day job!

Gerald said...

Discuss this story Print This Post E-Mail This Article
Published on Thursday, December 6, 2007 by Agence France Presse

Two-Thirds of Israelis Oppose Attack on Iran: Poll

JERUSALEM - Two-thirds of Israelis oppose their country launching on its own a military attack against nuclear installations in arch-foe Iran, said a poll published on Thursday.

When asked “should Israel alone attack the Iranian nuclear installations,” 67.2 percent said no, while 20.9 percent said yes and 11.9 percent had no opinion, said the survey aired on public radio.

The poll questioned people after the publication of a bombshell intelligence report in the United States earlier in the week, which said Tehran had frozen its atomic weapons programme in 2003.

Israel has vowed to keep up its diplomatic offensive against Iran’s contested nuclear programme despite the report, saying it believes Tehran has probably restarted an atomic weapons programme.

Widely thought to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, Israel considers Iran its top enemy following repeated statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.

Thursday’s poll was carried out by Shivuk Panorama marketing group, questioning 562 people, and had a 4.5-percentage point margin of error.