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While it’s very easy to get caught up in the dynamics of the Kinder Morgan controversy, what about the real question, the truly critical question? What is the impact of the Tar Sands on global carbon emissions? Where Does Tar Sands Carbon Pollution Go?

Tar Sands Carbon Pollution

Credit: IPCC data, image by NASA/Goddard, chart by Barry Saxifrage

Barry Saxifrage, a climate analyst/reporter, says that more than 3 billion barrels of carbon pollution from the Tar Sands have already been absorbed by the world’s oceans. “All the bitumen that doesn’t spill from pipelines or tankers gets burned, ending up as carbon pollution dumped into our environment,” he explains. “Over one-quarter ends up in the oceans, acidifying them for millennia to come.”

Since 1967, over 12 billion barrels of bitumen have been extracted from the Tar Sands, adding up to 6.3 gigatonnes of CO2 according to estimates from Oil Change International. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) estimates that 28 percent of this carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and 44 percent (~2.7 GtCO2) ends up in the air that we breathe.

More Carbon Pollution To Come

Saxifrage explains that the Kinder Morgan proposal will produce as much new bitumen as that already dug out since Tar Sands production began in 1967. If built, the pipeline will increase the flow of bitumen from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels. And surely, more than doubling the amount of bitumen produced will also double the pollution dumped into our atmosphere.

“Whether this fossil carbon gets spilled in liquid, solid or gaseous form, it will cause lasting damage to marine life, to coral reefs, to fisheries and to the people who cherish and depend on our oceans,” says Saxifrage. “There is no scenario in which bitumen doesn’t “spill” into our oceans causing harm.”

2017 was the warmest year on record for the planet’s oceans. A little known fact is that our oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the human-caused warming since 1970, as recently reported in Scientific American. This warming is causing rising sea levels, a rapid decline in oceanic oxygen, the bleaching of more coral reefs and the accelerated meltdown of the Arctic.

There Is Only One Atmosphere

The question of where Tar Sands pollution goes is particularly critical for the success of the Paris Agreement. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would increase the shipping of Alberta bitumen elsewhere where its burning will release carbon into the global atmosphere we all breathe. And there’s only one atmosphere.

In December 2015 in Paris, the countries of the world agreed to keep the warming of the planet to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue the aspirational goal to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. But that is not going very well. For that to happen, global GHGs must peak by 2020 and the gap must be closed by 2030. We are simply not on the right trajectory according to the UN Environment 2017 Emissions Gap Report.

Trudeau has called Kinder Morgan a “trade off” for his national carbon plan saying we can both build the pipeline and still hit our Paris targets. In a recent National Observer interview, David Suzuki said “we’re not going to make it” when asked about our Paris targets.

That’s such a lot of bullshit! this is just political doublespeak: ‘We’ve got to keep burning more oil, more fossil fuels, in order to meet our reduction targets.’ What are you talking about? That’s such a crock of shit! ~ David Suzuki

Related articles…
Why Canada’s Climate Plan Can’t Be Traded For Kinder Morgan
Show Us The Science On Kinder Morgan Mr. Trudeau

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  1. On the world scale, the “Tar Sands” carbon pollution in the atmosphere and the oceans is small, yet by no means negligible. Like any other country, Canada needs to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) output towards meeting the 2015 Paris Climate Accord for staying below 20C temperature rise since 1870. However, as the article states, “We are simply not on the right trajectory….” to meet this target.

    The 2°C rise corresponds to a carbon dioxide (CO2) content in the world’s atmosphere of about 534 ppm (parts per million}. In order not to exceed 2°C, relatively simple calculations with 2013 data show that the world would need to reduce its yearly output by 1.6 % of CO2 and the same % for the other GHGs. The problem with the Paris Accord is that every country is choosing its own GHG reduction target and this would result in much more than the 2°C increase in temperature.

    The current approach is bound to fail and a different one is indicated. New rational defined reduction targets are needed for every country by assigning to each the same yearly % reduction target that the world needs, which for 2013 was 1.6 % per year for each GHG. This reduction ratio corresponds to each country’s own yearly output on the starting date of the worldwide reduction program. This approach is relatively simple and also equitable, since the big polluters would have to reduce proportionately more GHG than those with little output. Failure for any country to achieve at least the required reduction ratio would need to be subject to a penalty that is proportional to its reduction deficit.

    To start that reduction program requires a common starting date, say 2020 or shortly thereafter, and a recalculation of the world % GHG reduction to meet the 2°C target. This will be greater than the 1.6 % per year for this illustration since considerable time will have elapsed and world and country GHG outputs will have changed.

    This % GHG reduction method applies equally well within a country. For Canada, the yearly % reduction could be applied to every Province as well as any industrial sector or concentrated outputs of GHG, such as coal or gas power plants or the Tar Sands. If an industry cannot meet the yearly reduction quota it would have to reduce its production and eventually be phased out.

    The worldwide % reduction program would need to be negotiated as a successor to the 2015 Paris Accord. This would then automatically include such domestic issues as the Tar Sands pollution and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline extension and, if accepted, enable the world to stay “below 2°C.”

    • Hans – thank you for sharing parts of your paper. Your proposal has much appeal on many grounds. It is easy to understand, simple and sensible. But there has to be political will and that is lacking regardless of which formula is being used to play to emissions-reduction game. And truly, it is a game. Politicians like Trump and Ford oppose carbon tax because they know their base will just eat that up. The anti-establishment, anti-tax and job-killing carbon pricing is candy for the ultra right.

      Thank you again for your comments.


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