Arguing Over Tar Sands

By Juliana Williams, Editor It’s Getting Hot in Here.  Special to UN Dispatch

It may come as a surprise to learn that oil sands, also called tar sands, have only been a major player on the climate scene since 1995. That was the year that Canada’s National Task Force on Oil Sands Strategies released its recommendations on how to massively expand the oil sands industry in Alberta. The extraction of oil sands in Alberta in one of the most destructive projects on the planet, devastating an area approximately the size of Florida, has only taken place in the last 15 years.

The massive expansion of the oil sands industry happened after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created in 1992. After the first meeting of the UNFCCC, in 1995. After the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Second Assessment Report on climate science that identified “a discernable human influence on global climate.”

Since then, oil sands have become the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, producing about 5% of the country’s total emissions.

Canada has no excuse that they didn’t know the impact oil sands would have on the climate. Luckily, the rest of the world is beginning to sour on oil sands, a fuel that produces on average three times the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil.

Just this week, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the State Department’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would import 900,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude from Canada. In addition to safety concerns and the impacts of oil sands on climate change the EPA stated that,

“There is a reasonably close causal relationship between issuing a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL project and increased extraction of oil sands crude in Canada intended to supply that pipeline.”

In other words, the State Department must address the fact that Keystone XL pipeline would contribute to increased oil sands extraction.

Earlier in July, Corporate Ethics International placed billboard advertisements in several United States cities drawing attention to the environmental impacts Alberta’s oil sands. “Alberta: The Other Oil Disaster. Thinking of visiting Alberta, Canada? Think again,” the billboards read. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach angrily rejected the “outrageous claims” of the campaign, even though his own Council on Economic Strategy released a report stating that “Alberta’s reputation with key energy customers has been damaged in recent years” by the oil sands industry.

At the Canada 2020 conference “Greening the Oil Sands” in June, John Podesta, head of the U.S. think tank Center for American Progress, challenged the premise of the conference:

“Oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy-intensive. These things are facts. I think suggesting this process can come close to approximating being “greened” is largely misleading, or far too optimistic, or perhaps both. It stands alongside clean coal and error-free deepwater drilling as more PR than reality.”

Three months ago, in April, Shell Oil decided to place all further investment in oil sands on hold until the second half of this decade, after pressure from shareholders highlighted the environmental impacts of oil sands.

Back in December, Members of the European Parliament sent an open letter to the CEOs and Chairmen of the Boards of Directors of Shell, BP, Statoil and Total, all European companies, urging them to “turn away from tar sands and towards clean energy sources.”

Despite this pressure, production of oil sands crude is expected to double to over 3 million barrels a day by 2020. Additionally, Canadian company Earth Energy Resources aims to open the first oil sands mine in the United States, located in eastern Utah. Fuel produced from oil sands is a step in the wrong direction ff the world is going to successfully tackle the monumental challenge of climate change. We know that oil sands significantly add to climate change. There are no more excuses for supporting oil sands.