Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Royal Society of Canada Report on the Tar Sands: Critiquing the Critique

An article appearing in this morning’s Globe & Mail, “Oil sands report criticizes all stakeholders” caught my eye. The article discusses a new report issued by the Royal Society of Canada, “Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry (December, 2010)”

The Report itself is quite lengthy. There is an Executive Summary which you can peruse. If you’re interested in what’s going on in the tar sands, I strongly suggest that you take a look, as I believe that this document is going to play a significant role in future conversations about the tar sands.

Now, I’ve not had a chance to go through this Report in any comprehensive way. Based on my read of the story appearing in today’s Globe & Mail, however, it seemed that this study seriously attempted to explode myths about the tar sands as advanced by all parties. Governments, the oil industry, environmental organizations: no one appears to be spared, and a significant amount of “spin” is countered with facts. This is the sort of thing that I normally like to see.

The Globe & Mail reports that the Alberta Ministry of Environment appears to be taking the report seriously, coming as it does from academics, rather than environmental organizations. In my quick review of the document, it does appear that Royal Society really has attempted to provide facts to the best of its ability (which can be tricky, given the situation with data), and often in a way which counters some of the jargon and spin being advanced by all parties.


I’ll just quickly reproduce the last little section of the G&M article, subtitled “Mythbusting”, to highlight some of the Royal Society Report’s findings.

Myth: Regulatory oversight is strong.
Report: Alberta hasn't “kept pace with rapid expansion” and has a confusing process prone to “political interference” and lacking scientific rigour. Ottawa isn't doing any better and needs “to show some leadership.”

Myth: The aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan, which is downstream of oil sands development, has an elevated cancer rate.
Report: “There is no credible evidence to support the commonly repeated media accounts of excess cancer in Fort Chipewyan.”

Myth: Oil sands operations are draining the Athabasca River, and polluting what's left.
Report: Current extraction levels are sustainable and there is no “current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability.”

Myth: Land is being reclaimed, or returned to normal, after mining.
Report: The province is on the hook for unfunded reclamation liabilities and “no tailings pond has yet been completely reclaimed.”

Myth: The oil sands are an environmental catastrophe of international scale.
Report: The claim lacks any “credible quantitative evidence.” The James Bay hydro project has destroyed 15 times as much boreal forest as the oil sands; coal power is responsible for 17 per cent of Canadian carbon emissions, more than three times the oil sands' total.

Myth: Environmentally, open-pit mining is the worst form of bitumen extraction.
Report: Open pit is messy, but “in situ,” or underground mining produces as much as 20 per cent more greenhouse gas.

Interesting stuff for sure. And it does well from a media-story perspective, as the Report appears to offer incredibly balanced coverage of the issue, skewering all sides as it seems to do in its simple presentation of the facts. That's another reason why I believe this Report is going to contribute to the tar sands dialogue.

I’m not going to take issue with any of the above statements. Truth is, I don’t know enough about the supposed health impacts of bitumen processing or Alberta’s regulatory regime to write knowledgeably about this topic. I do, however, have a few issues with the Report which I think are worth pointing out.

Dirty Oil

First, with regards to the “Mythbusting”: I note that the Globe & Mail doesn’t say much about whether tar sands oil is “dirty oil” or not. The Report itself, in Section 6.4.6, “Life cycle Emissions from Petroleum Sources”, touches on this subject, and concludes with the following statement: “In summary, comparisons of GHG emissions from oil sands with other petroleum sources is very dependent on the petroleum source that is used for comparison and the specific details concerning the processing of bitumen. Nonetheless, life cycle GHG emissions from oil sands are in the upper part or at the top of range for all petroleum sources. In situ bitumen recovery is the highest for GHG emissions, and its proportion of bitumen production is increasing.” (emphasis added by me)

In other words, it’s dirty oil. And it’s getting dirtier. Keep this in mind.

Tar Sands Production: A Rising Percentage of Total Canadian GHG Emissions

The Report indicates that the tar sands share of Canadian GHG emissions counts for just 5.2% based on 2008 data. Dirty oil from the tar sands accounts for 19% of emissions from the transportation sector (a sector which itself accounts for 29% of Canada’s overall GHG emissions). 5.2% really doesn’t seem like so much, especially when expressed as a global percentage: just 0.08% of the world’s total emissions come from the production of tar sands oil.

As the Globe & Mail indicated, more greenhouse gases are generated through the burning of coal in Canada than through the production of bitumen. Of course, coal-related emissions from Canadian sources are anticipated to decline significantly in the next decade, as Ontario begins the process of shuttering its coal fired generating stations. The tar sands, on the other hand, can expect significant increases.

The Report suggests that the intensity of emissions from the tar sands is in decline, however total emissions will increase considerably over time. The Report highlights that, with regulation, a low end estimate for increase would see total GHG emissions rise from a current (2008) total of 37 million tonnes to 55 million tonnes by 2020. That’s a 49% increase. A high end estimate for a regulated environment could see totals as high as 91 million tonnes by 2020 (146% increase).

If the status quo situation is maintained with regards to regulations, the Report estimates that, based on federal government data, we can expect emissions of 110 million tonnes by 2020 (an increase of 197%). Other scientific sources offer a more realistic estimation for growth to 127 million tonnes by 2020 (an increase of 243%). So although emissions from production today (well, in 2008) accounted only for 5.2% of Canada’s total, with fewer emissions from coal, and more emissions from the tar sands due to growth, we can expect the tar sands to be responsible for a higher percentage of Canada’s total emissions by 2020.

However, the Report itself doesn’t come right out and say this, nor does it attempt to answer the question regarding what percentage of Canada’s emissions will tar sands production account for in 2020. Why is this?

Scope and Underlying Assumptions

Well, here’s the rub of the whole exercise. The Report clearly identifies that it is a scoped assessment, looking only at impacts from the production of bitumen in the tar sands (oil sands) in isolation of most other considerations. The Report indicates that it would run the risk of becoming too large in scope and other, broader environmental and health impacts were taken into consideration.

And therefore some pretty significant impacts were left out of the Report, in my opinion. I’m not a scientist; I’m just some guy who blogs about climate change, amongst other things. But even I, layperson that I am, can see that the Report has a pretty serious flaw. Although the Report is very likely a credible and useful tool for conversations about how the tar sands can generate economic growth in a more environmentally friendly way, there does not appear to be any discussion regarding the ethics and merits of tar sands expansion in the context of holding global warming to a 2 degree Celsius increase.

In other words, the Report itself starts from the perspective that the tar sands will grow, so how best can we manage that growth.

Climate Change and the Oil Economy

For many, this may appear to be a responsible position, particularly in light of the fact that the Report concludes that the tar sands total contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is quite small when taken on a global scale. Of course, that’s just from production. Full life cycle, “well to wheel” emissions are considered by the Report, but not in a comprehensive manner with regards to their overall contribution to climate change. However, even if they were, likely we'd still end up with what appears to be a small-ish percentage.

A shortcoming of the Report’s scope, along with its starting point of assuming that growth will occur, is to look at the tar sands in isolation and not as part of a bigger picture where oil drives our global economy. In this bigger picture, even a fairly large and dirty project, such as the tar sands, is only one relatively small piece of the puzzle (even if it will grow in importance over time). Some might say that recognizing this fact justifies the argument that expansion and growth can occur, because the scale of the tar sands is ultimately not significant on its own. Of course, no single project in a global context would in and of itself be “significant”. No one piece of the puzzle is going to be all that large relative to other pieces.

But the overall picture of oil production certainly is significant. We know that we must leave about 80% of existing known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground if we are going to hold global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Oil locked up in Alberta bitumen may have to stay locked up, along with “significant” deposits elsewhere. In fact, when it comes to looking at which oil really should stay in the ground, from a GHG emissions perspective, it would make much more sense that the “dirty oil” be left alone, due to the fact that it will release more emissions.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that a lack of discussion around climate change is a flaw in the Royal Society’s Report. No. The Report was always intended to be scoped and limited to looking primarily at the direct impacts of bitumen extraction in the tar sands. It seems to perform that task quite well.

I’m worried, however, by the fact that this Report probably will begin to play an increasingly significant role in the dialogue regarding tar sands development. It will be used by politicians and others to justify the continued growth and expansion of the tar sands, albeit in a more environmentally friendly manner than may be currently happening. And this justification will take place without any further context, such as the need to leave reserves in the ground or risk a rise in warming above 2 degrees Celsius.

So when people start talking about developing the oil sands in an environmentally friendly manner, based on the Royal Society’s Report, keep it tucked away in the back of your mind that the Royal Society didn’t address the issue of whether it made sense to develop the tar sands at all, given the contribution of tar sands dirty oil to furthering global warming. The bigger picture, whether we can afford to continue to extract oil for economic growth, was not assessed.

And frankly, neither were the very real threats posed by a warming planet on our economic, environmental and social health.

Even if we can reclaim open pit mines, address tailings ponds, and ensure that air and water quality issues are better addressed as part of the bitumen extraction process, it’s not going to make the tar sands an “environmentally friendly” project, given the significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions production and life-cycle dirty oil will make to our atmosphere.

Can we really afford to pay this price? The Royal Society can't answer that question, because they didn't look at it. We, however, need to continue to ensure that these questions are part and parcel of any dialogue about the tar sands.

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