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The Death of the Tar Sands – When one looks at the history of the Tar Sands and the Harper Government’s energy strategy for Canada (focused almost entirely on the expansion of fossil fuels) the Death of the Tar Sands seems like an unlikely scenario. But Tim Flannery, the author of The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change, has a different viewpoint.

The Death of the Tar Sands

The Tar Sands Are Like an Old Man

During his recent trip to Canada, Tim Flannery compared the Tar Sands and fossil fuel industry to an old man.

It doesn’t have the flexibility to cope with price shocks anymore. It’s got to trade in a very narrow price band or it’s going to fall over. And Big Oil views innovation as the enemy. As new technologies make renewables cheaper, fossil fuel producers continue to feel a price squeeze. In other words — trouble for the costly extraction of oil from the tar sands.

Tar Sands Execs See Innovation as the Enemy – Tim Flannery

Published on Apr 21, 2014
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The Death of the Tar Sands?

Does Tim Flannery have any reason to be optimistic? Perhaps it’s time to do a reality check on the Tar Sands. According to the Pembina Institute and Environmental Defence, there is quite a discrepancy between the talking points which imply “that things are getting better all the time” and the proven fact that “expanding the oilsands will significantly increase Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

Pembina Institute

  • The Tar Sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution, and have surpassed transportation as Canada’s biggest generator of global warming gases.
  • The Tar Sands already emit as much carbon pollution as the entire province of British Columbia, and production is projected to double within a decade.
  • If Alberta were a country, its per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be higher than any other country in the world.
  • Industry plans to more than triple production from 2010 levels by 2030, resulting in a 250% increase in carbon pollution.
  • The projected growth in emissions from the tar sands will cancel out every other effort in Canada to reduce GHGs.
  • By 2022, it is expected that mining and in situ development will result in the daily clearing of 18.6 hectares of forest, or the equivalent of 34.5 football fields, every day.
  • Oilsands operators used approximately 170 million cubic meters of water in 2011, equivalent to the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians.
  • Tailings are toxic and are stored indefinitely in open lakes that cover an area approximately 50% larger than the city of Vancouver.
  • More than 200 million litres of mature fine tailings are produced each day, enough to fill Toronto’s Sky Dome) 47 times each year.

Environmental Defence

  •  Environment Canada’s report show pollution from the tar sands alone is more than the combined emissions from Ontario and Quebec.
  • The tar sands are standing in the way of Canada’s climate goals. The emissions from the tar sands will cancel out every single effort in the country to reduce GHGs, even huge efforts like the end of coal-fired electricity in Ontario.
  • Industry admits that the tar sands companies do not have the technology to significantly reduce emissions.
  • Because the tar sands take so much more energy to process than conventional oils, they are much more expensive to produce. To keep these projects profitable, government gives them over a billion dollars worth of subsidies each year.
  • The world is going on a carbon diet. In the face of dangerous climate change it is high cost, high risk, and high carbon projects that are going to be the first to go. The tar sands are all three and investors and shareholders are starting to question these high carbon projects.
  • Canada’s economy was battered by climate change impacts in 2013 (floods, fires, droughts). And these kinds of extreme weather have big price tags. Flooding in Calgary cost over $5 billion. As our planet heats up, we can expect more of this extreme weather and the price tags that accompany them.
  • The risks of moving tar sands oil are big. Tar sands spills in places like Kalamazoo, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas have proven nearly impossible to clean up with price tags well over one billion dollars and counting.
  • Canada does not have a single federal regulation on emission from the oil and gas sector. And behind closed doors industry is protesting even the weakest of the proposed climate regulations (Environmental Defence).
The Death of the Tar Sands
Oilsands production and GHG emissions. Production data (synthetic crude oil and bitumen) from CAPP Statistical Handbook 2013, Table 03-02A. Emissions data from Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 2014 and Canada’s Emissions Trends 2013.

Since emissions grew less rapidly than production, emissions per barrel have indeed fallen. But this improvement took place almost entirely in the early years. In fact, since 2005, emissions and production have been marching in lockstep, with emissions and production both growing by 80 per cent. (Source: Pembina Institute)

The Credibility Gap on the Tar Sands

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are suffering from a massive credibility gap when it comes to the Tar Sands. The talking points and the Go With Canada public relations strategy, aimed at getting the Keystone XL approval by President Obama, are at odds with the new climate change reality faced by humankind. These efforts have failed to convince an increasingly aware Canadian public about their country’s downward spiral to a petro-state.

The Death of the Tar Sands,

In its attempt to woe the North American public about the merits of the Tar Sands, Canada has constantly lied about its persona as a world environmental leader in the oil and gas sector. This is an insult to all Canadians who fear that its government is focusing all of its attention on a fossil-fuel future as it watches the low-carbon parade go by.

The Canadian government’s fictitious claim about being an environmental leader is hypocritical and quite deceitful when one considers Stephen Harper’s War on Knowledge:

The war on knowledge is driven by Stephen Harper’s vision of flat-out resource exploitation, regardless of the far-reaching environmental degradation. Science and knowledge that support that vision do well but facts that are a nuisance to politicians do not do as well.There is trouble in the realms of science and knowledge in Canada. Factual information that is not useful to support government policy and economic growth is ignored. This obsessive political focus on economics ignores the environmental peril, with consequences our grandchildren will inherit.

Chris Turner is the author of  The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada. He believes that Canadians will not tolerate a government that is eroding traditional Canadian values purely for economic gains:

This is not a country that takes pride in disrupting international climate conferences…this is not a country that understands itself to be the worst environmental criminal on the planet…this is not a country that muzzles its scientists and dismantles its research labs or places its finest scientific institutions at the full mercy of business.

Rebranding the Tar Sands Has Failed

It will take more then rebranding to make Tar Sands oil ethical,” says David Suzuki. “The black eye that Tar Sands oil is sporting can’t be remedied with meaningless phrases such as “ethical oil”.

To be seen as truly ethical when it comes to energy policy, Canada must slow down tar sands development, clean up the environmental problems, implement a national carbon tax, improve the regulatory and monitoring regime, and make sure that Canadians are reaping their fair share of the revenues. We must also start taking clean energy seriously. Rather than subsidizing the tar sands and all the fossil fuel industry through massive tax breaks, we should be investing in energy technologies that will benefit our health, economy, and climate.

What About the Clean-Energy Sector?

According to Analytica Advisors2014 Canadian Clean Technology Report released on March 6, Canada’s clean technology sector, currently a $11.3 billion industry, has the potential to grow to $50 billion by 2022. Clean technology could transform Canadian industrial practices if the Canadian government legislates policies that optimize its growth, according to the report. This is an opportunity that is too good to miss but that remains largely unknown by Canadians.

The Canadian economy faces mounting challenges, highlighted by the quickening pace of carbon emission control measures in other parts of the world – Sweden, British Columbia, Mexico, and most recently in China – in response to accelerating climate change. Many fossil fuel companies and the corporate world are beginning to recognize that global developments will increasingly force change toward a low carbon economy.

If Canada waits too long, its clean technology potential in manufacturing and jobs will migrate to greener shores.

 A National Carbon Tax

Canada is at a crossroads. Should we invest in dirty oil and pipelines, committing our country to a high-carbon future? Or should we focus on doing what is best for future generations of Canadians – the transformation to clean-tech economic growth providing both jobs and a healthier environment. 

With the world’s leading experts giving their most dire warning yet on the impact of climate change, it’s time for Canada to move at unprecedented speed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, starting with a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Detractors who argue against a carbon tax say it will kill jobs, drag down the economy and burden families with higher energy bills. A recent study by Regional Economic Models Inc. found that a carbon tax in California, even at very high levels, would increase GDP and add hundreds of thousands of jobs, provided the revenue is returned to the public, either as tax cuts or direct payments.

In Canada, a study released by Analytica Advisors in early March 2014 found that between 2008, when British Columbia legislated a revenue neutral carbon tax, and 2010, the province’s clean technology sector grew by 48 per cent.

Factors mitigating in favor of the Death of the Tar Sands

The factors favoring the death of the tar sands are many:

  • The certainty that the Stephen Harper Conservatives will not be relected in 2015 – a government plagued by scandals, corruption, lies, its war against the science and knowledge industry, a failed energy strategy, a slow economic recovery, the Fair Elections Act.
  • Canadians and trading partners around the world can see through the greenwashing campaigns of the Stephen Harper government.
  • An increased awareness of dire warnings of catastrophic climate change unless immediate action is taken to reduce CO2 emissions.
  • The growing demands for climate action across North America and the world.
  • A realization by Canadians of the urgency to stop clinging to last century’s dirty fuels and instead focus on cleaner, smarter energy.
  • The world is on the edge of the next industrial revolution focused on renewables and distributed energy systems. Canadians do not want to miss out on this opportunity.
  • The Tar Sands are not good for the future generations of Canadians.
  •  A misguided assumption that the world won’t take climate change seriously.
  • A growing opposition to pipeline expansion – Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Energy East.
  • President Obama’s postponement of a decision on Keystone XL and the likely rejection of the project by Obama.
  • A divestment movement which is gaining momentum across North America.

Action on Climate Change is critical. We must take it seriously. There is no time to waste. Future generations will ask one of two questions when they look back to the first decades of the 21st century:

1. With all that was known, how could you not take action? or

2. How did you find the courage to take action?

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