The Climate Impact of the Alberta Oilsands

Before University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver announced he was going to run for the BC Green Party he co-authored a report with one of his PhD students, Neil Swart, for the journal Nature Climate Change on the climate impact of the Alberta oilsands. The study compared the global warming potential of the Alberta oilsands with other global fossil fuel resources.

The report was a political hot potato, coming out at a time when the debate was raging over huge pipeline projects from Alberta. The paper concluded that burning the "proven resource" - the economically viable oilsands resource - would amount to global warming of 0.03°C.

If all of the much larger "oil in place", which includes reserves not economically viable due to the price of oil or technological limitations, were burned, the authors concluded global warming would be increased by 0.36°C .

The study raised the ire of anti-pipeline protestors and was seized upon as a PR tool by promoters of the oilsands industry. But it also illustrates why Weaver is so passionate about stopping US thermal coal exports out of British Columbia ports and why we need to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground.

Running On Climate looks at the response to the report from multiple angles, because the issue is such a vital and contentious one for Canada, from an ecological and economic point of view.

Here's a couple of animations from the film, adapted from the data in Swart and Weaver's February 2012 paper.

The first animation looks at the climate impact in degrees centigrade of each global pile of fossil fuel - coal, oil and natural gas, conventional and unconventional. The fly-out box for the Alberta oilsands "proven resources" is required as it is only a slither on the "Unconventional Oil" bar.

The second animation shows two circles: the outer green circle shows the cumulative per capita carbon emissions compatible with keeping global mean warming below 2°C, while the inner red circle shows the per capita carbon footprint that would result from the populations of the USA and Canada using the Alberta oil sands proven reserves.

The second animation speaks for itself. The climate footprint of the oilsands is huge for Canadians.

On top of this, Canada will not be able to make its green house gas emissions reduction pledge, made at Copenhagen. The main reason: emissions from the process of extracting Alberta bitumen keep rising.

The response

An in-depth analysis of Swart and Weaver's paper and the media response is covered by Skeptical Science, including how the climate impact of the oilsands is higher when looking at a shorter time frame (100 years) than Swart and Weaver's study.

One of the interviewees in Running On Climate, Mark Jaccard also wrote a scathing piece for the Globe and Mail about the paper.

There's more information following up on the paper at Neil Swart's page.

I should also point out that while the Alberta oilsands industry and Conservative Party of Canada have used the Nature Climate Change findings to promote expansion of the oilsands Weaver has been one of the staunchest critics of oilsands expansion, opposing both the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the tripling of the existing Trans Mountain / Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver for social, environmental, and economic reasons. He has also been a vocal critic of the regulatory body in Canada, the National Energy Board, which has a deliberate and stated policy of not considering climate change when reviewing major projects like dilbit pipelines.

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