Andrew Weaver on the Tar Sands

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Last week, world-renowned University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, lead author of several IPCC reports, shocked friends and enemies alike by publishing an article in Nature Climate Change in which he makes an unexpected claim. He and co-author Neil Swart (a UVIC PhD student) find that Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands have a surprisingly small impact on the Earth’s climate.

According to the numbers they provide, burning all the oil from the tar sands (or “oil sands” to be polite) would increase global temperatures by 0.36 degrees Celsius — hardly an insignificant amount. However, the more pertinent measurement is of economically viable tar sands oil, which would raise temperatures by only 0.03 degrees Celsius. By contrast, burning all the world’s coal would warm the planet by 14.8 degrees Celsius.

We have seen the true face of environmental villainy, crows Canada’s right-wing media echo chamber, and unconventional Albertan oil it ain’t!

Two points:

First, as Weaver says up front, these numbers take into consideration only the warming caused by burning tar sands oil, not that caused by the energy consumption needed to extract, transport, and refine it. This apparent oversight is actually a procedural necessity meant to avoid double-counting emissions, and is therefore fully defensible as a feature of the study.  However, the energy intensity of tar sands production is a large part of why the resource is considered “dirty.” If such considerations are included, says Weaver, the global warming effect of tar sands oil increases by 20 percent.

Second, why are we so surprised that the negative impact of one fossil fuel project in one province should pale in comparison to that of all the coal reserves in the world? The more appropriate comparison would be between the tar sands and another project of similar size.

To his great credit, Weaver has been hard at work trying to put his results in context. He emphasizes that the tar sands are Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions growth, that they are a symptom of a much larger problem, and that it is urgently important for us to wean ourselves off of all fossil fuels. He also acknowledges the profound ecological damage, measured by more than just climate impact, that is caused by tar sands exploitation.

In the end, Weaver’s research represents all that is best in science — the unbiased pursuit of knowledge for its own sake regardless of what is uncovered. We should embrace his findings for what they are, and fight the attempts by fossil fuel apologists to twist them into something they’re not. If only polluters were to demonstrate so unshakable an allegiance to the truth as this, we would probably not find ourselves perched so close to the edge of ecological catastrophe in the first place.

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