Tar Sands – Dangerous Distraction or Just Plain Dangerous?

 Last week the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released a new report The Canadian Oil Sands: Energy Security vs. Climate Change. The report attempts to address a debate about whether the United States needs further expansion of tar sands oil development. The report got it fundamentally wrong.

Clean transportation solutions for the 21st century such as wind and solar to power electrified vehicles are endless. We can lead the technological development of these solutions and put American ingenuity to work. So why would this new report emphasize the importance of Canada expanding its extraction of, and the United States increasing its reliance on, high carbon and environmentally destructive tar sands oil?  Our reliance on oil has led us into dangerous places and oil is a limited resource, threatens our national security and pollutes our atmosphere and damages our health. Even though the tar sands are located in a friendly neighboring country, expansion of the tar sands means more of the same. This report endorses business as usual, in a business that is underminig our ability to build a clean energy economy. What the report fails to acknowledge is that while oil will be around for a while, we must now take steps toward a post-petroleum society. Postponing that day by expanding ever more remote, dirty and dangerous sources of synthetic crude is not a strategy for energy security.

The report concludes that "For the near future, the economic and security value of oil sands expansion will likely outweigh the climate damages that the oil sands create..."  This perspective fails to account for the costs and risks from locking us into an immensely expensive and complex tar sands infrastructure that does not make sense for a sharply emissions-constrained future.

The report sets out to analyze "complex tradeoffs" in expanding the Canadian tar sands. It says that some argue that Canadian tar sands are an "energy security godsend" and others argue that they are a "climate disaster". It is significant that the report concludes that tar sands are not critical to U.S. energy security. However, it then goes on to conclude that tar sands are also not catastrophic for climate change. It makes policy recommendations that seem to have little basis in the need for a varied toolkit of solutions and that would largely support expansion of tar sands oil development. But expansion of tar sands oil development cannot be reconciled with the imperative to reduce the deterioration of our atmosphere.

The CFR report will undoubtedly be used by those who want to justify expansion of tar sands oil. What the report neglects to acknowledge is that tar sands oil exemplifies a big step down a path that is dangerous and destructive. If we do not address oil demand, we will end up with dependence on ever harder to access, dirtier and more destructive forms of fuel such as liquid coal, oil shale and others. This debate is not just about tar sands, but about which path we wish to choose for our energy and transportation needs. Those of us looking forward to a new way of doing business know that we can reduce our dependence on oil by implementing the policies that the President supports and is already moving to put into place for cleaner energy and transportation solutions. It is by reducing our dependence on oil that we will actually achieve energy and climate security. President Obama, speaking Wednesday at Nellis Air Force base, said that we cannot bear the cost of our oil addiction any longer. He said that we are trying to build a firmer foundation for economic growth by harnessing the power of clean, renewable energy. This vision does not pit energy security against climate change - that is a false dichotomy used in the CFR report. Instead, it redefines energy security as including climate security.

The United States cannot afford to undermine its efforts to move forward in building a clean energy economy by supporting expansion of tar sands oil. Increasing our reliance on tar sands oil would take us backwards rather than forwards. The report raises the question of whether the debate over tar sands is a "dangerous distraction." Far from it - this is a critical debate that needs to end in our realization that tar sands oil production is just plain dangerous - to our health and to our future.


Here's a more detailed look at some of the points made in the report:

  • The report minimizes the long-term climate risk from tar sands by focusing mostly on the high emissions from tar sands oil production as a percentage of global emissions and not on the larger climate risk associated with burning the tar sands oil reserves over many years in our gas tanks. The report also says that the climate change threat posed by tar sands is only something to worry about in the long-term. Fine - it is the long-term that we are concerned about. Tar sands projects, once built have a 25-50 year lifespan. We need to address them now in order to address that long-term threat. We can't afford to sink billions into expensive new tar sands infrastructure that will then effectively lock us into using this new oil source for decades to come. Expanding a high carbon fuel at this time takes us backwards, not forwards in meeting our energy goals - and the more reliant we get on high carbon fuels, the harder it will be to make the necessary move to lower carbon transportation solutions.  We need to invest scarce capital in developing and deploying permanent solutions like clean electricity to power plug-ins and pure electric vehicles rather than locking into a 20th century oil infrastructure.
  • The report advocates for free emissions permits for tar sands producers under a linked U.S. and Canadian cap and trade system.  Yet, free emissions permits for the tar sands oil industry would do nothing to make the oil industry bear the real costs of the atmospheric deterioration that they are causing. And free emissions permits for tar sands oil development would provide windfall profits to major oil companies instead of helping individual consumers. Do we really want to be using free emissions permits to subsidize Shell, BP, Suncor, Exxon and ConocoPhillips? Tar sands oil development is already the fastest growing source of global warming pollution in Canada and is largely responsible for keeping Canada from meeting its international commitments to reduce global warming pollution.
  • The report argues that if the U.S. doesn't take the oil, some other nation will.  This "leakage" argument goes that if the United States does not take the expansion of tar sands oil, Canada will send it to Asia into markets where carbon regulations are not strong. But the very fact of our expanded tar sands oil use will undercut our own efforts to fight global warming.  The fact is, it is highly unlikely that tar sands oil is going to Asia. There is currently no pipeline to take tar sands oil to the west coast. Such a pipeline would have to go through the territory of many Indigenous communities where opposition to the pipeline is strong. There is also essentially a moratorium on tanker traffic off the British Columbia coast and the prospect of lifting the moratorium is also meeting with much opposition. Further, the major oil companies in the tar sands are the same companies that are spending billions on expanding tar sands pipelines and refineries in the United States - they will not want to see tar sands oil flowing to China.
  • The report unwisely recommends that policy-makers "tread carefully with any low carbon fuel standard," undercutting a critical new tool for reducing oil use and pollution.  Such standards help to drive rapid innovation towards essential long-term solutions such as electrifying vehicles. A low carbon fuel standard - newly in place in California and being considered by other States and Provinces - is a market incentive for refiners to purchase fuels with lower global warming pollution over their lifecycle (from production to combustion). Tar sands oil has higher lifecycle global warming emissions than conventional oil and it is critical that we take into account the full lifecycle emissions of the fuels that we use if we are to reduce global warming pollution. Most mechanisms to control global warming pollution deal with emissions within the United States. The low carbon fuel standard and other mechanisms that would use lifecycle analysis are among the few that catch the pollution from producing the fuel even if the production occurs outside of the United States. This is why section 526 of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that keeps the United States from spending taxpayer dollars on fuels that make global warming worse is also so important. Yet, the report tries to discredit this federal fuel contracting provision with a long disproven and rather glib argument that it is too difficult to regulate U.S. government employees buying fuel at service stations across the United States. Of course, this is not what EISA section 526 does. It applies to U.S. government contracts for fuel with refineries that have a more than incidental amount of tar sands oil in their mix and is currently being implemented by the Department of Defense, the largest single fuel user in the U.S.
  • The report calls for policy-makers to "resist the misuse of other U.S. environmental regulations to constrain tar sands." What it is referring to are efforts that have already taken place to make sure that U.S. taxpayers are not footing the bill for purchases (such as EISA section 526 discussed above) or tax breaks or loan guarantees that will support projects that make global warming pollution worse. These efforts have been an important part of emerging U.S. regulation to fight global warming - if they have a side effect of constraining tar sands that is because of the very real global warming pollution impacts of that fuel source.
  • The report is oddly dismissive of the broader environmental impacts of tar sands oil development beyond global warming. It says that local effects should be handled by local communities when speaking of impacts in Alberta. Yet, it acknowledges that environmental regulation of the tar sands by Alberta or by Canada is unlikely. Further, it minimizes U.S. landowner and environmental organization concerns about the local impacts of tar sands pipelines and refinery expansions in the United States, accusing them of trying to "block permitting of tar sands related pipeline or refineries on climate grounds" when in reality these local concerns are much more complex and cover local air, water, agricultural and cultural impacts as well.  Overall, the report gives short shrift to the very real and severe environmental impacts of tar sands by implying that the United States shares no responsibility. Yet, U.S. consumption of tar sands oil has been and continues to be a major driver for the tar sands expansion rush. This gives Americans the responsibility to ensure that environmental and social impacts are minimized - from the most local to the most wide-reaching global impacts. And indeed, many of the impacts reach far beyond Alberta, both within Canada and internationally. The pipeline and refining infrastructure proposals expand from the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Migrating birds from throughout the Americas nest in this region of the Boreal forest and are being harmed by tar sands oil strip-mining and drilling. The Boreal forest is a globally important reservoir of carbon and one of the world's last large intact forests. A spill from a tar sands tailings waste pond could impact waters and public health all the way to the Arctic. And these are just a few of the broader impacts.
  • The report correctly notes that the United States should not be helping to fund carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects for the tar sands, but it minimizes the valid concerns around CCS as an adequate solution to the environmental concerns of the tar sands.  Canada has proposed the application of CCS to legitimize further expansion of the tar sands. Yet CCS is not in place in the tar sands and unlikely to be in place in coming years, and even if it were, does not adequately address global warming pollution concerns and does not address other environmental and public health concerns at all. CCS does not "clean up" the tar sands -- it does nothing to address water contamination, toxic tailings, destruction of the Boreal forest, threats to wildlife, and risks to human health. With respect to global warming pollution, using CCS to reduce emissions in the tar sands is untested and expensive. At best, industry estimates that CCS would only address approximately 10-30% of production emissions now, and 30-50% as costs come down. CCS also does not address tailpipe emissions from the end use of tar sands oil (80 - 90% of lifecycle emissions come from the tailpipe). If existing tar sands producers want to use CCS to reduce their GHGs, that's positive - but they should pay the full cost, which they have not been willing to do. The Canadian and Alberta governments' task force on CCS found that "only a small portion of the CO2 streams are currently amenable for CCS" - and this refers to the fact that many of the emissions are from the use of trucks and other vehicles in the extraction process, but also to the other emissions associated with extraction.  Finally, CCS is not mandated in Alberta - the only legislation related specifically to CCS is currently pending in the Alberta legislature concerning administration of a $2 billion subsidy for CCS. It is questionable how much this subsidy will spark CCS development in the tar sands as many of the major tar sands oil companies have decided not to complete proposals for these funds.