There’s an old episode of "The Simpsons" in which Bart pleads with his father to cease his verbal abuse of the local baseball team, the Springfield Isotopes. “You’ve got to support the team, Dad,” Bart insists. “They’re already threatening to move to Moose Jaw!” I felt a little tummy-tickling thrill when I first saw that episode, because as brief a mention as it was, the little Canadian prairie city where I was born had just been referenced on "The Simpsons"! It was like having my picture taken with a favorite celebrity or something.
I’m thinking of this as my current hometown and its primary industry are about to spend a late summer in the American media spotlight. The U.S. State Department is set to rule shortly on whether or not to allow TransCanada Pipelines of Calgary, Alberta — hey! that’s where I live! — to build a big new pipeline called the Keystone XL across the U.S. Midwest, in order to deliver 700,000 barrels of oil per day from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
On Saturday, a group called Tar Sands Action — which includes heavyweight climate activists like Bill McKibben and NASA’s James Hansen — began protesting the pipeline with a two-week sit-in outside the White House. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and actor Mark Ruffalo, among others, have voiced their opposition to the Keystone project and Alberta’s “dirty” oil in general. In a vast fossil-fueled world of rising greenhouse gas emissions, it’s come to pass that the ones coming from the upgrading and refining of Albertan bitumen — an unconventional oil source trapped in thick sludge beneath the sub-Arctic boreal forest — have become the poster child for the whole climate crisis.
The proximate reason for this choice is that Alberta’s bitumen is, by anyone’s accounting, the most emissions-intensive oil source on the planet. Just how bad is, however, a matter of some dispute. Many environmental groups — WWF Canada among them — cite a figure that Alberta’s oil emits three times as much carbon dioxide per barrel of oil than conventional sources, while the industry prefers a study by IHS CERA placing the figure at around 6 percent.
The facts on the ground are actually the same, of course. It’s ultimately a question of how you tally the emissions. If you look just at the front end of the supply chain in isolation, considering only the process of taking oil from the ground and getting it into a pipeline, the separation of oil from sands and upgrading into a pipe-ready liquid does in fact require three times as much carbon dioxide (mostly from natural gas-fired power plants) as oil from, say, the vast Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. If you look at the process from subterranean deposit all the way to a gas tank, it’s 82 percent more emissions-intensive (the figure widely cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
And if you look at the entire lifecycle of the barrel — which is to say, if you include the burning of the oil by a motor vehicle, which represents as much as 80 percent of the total emissions — then you get either a range from 8 to 37 percent (according to the Natural Resources Defense Council) or the industry’s preferred 5 to 15 percent data range. (I’m sure there’s a precise and highly technocratic explanation for this discrepancy out there somewhere, but I’m sure said explanation is probably less interesting to read about than me simply noting that emissions across the full lifecycle of a barrel of Alberta’s oil are understood to be much less than the three times those of conventional oil.)
Now, I think there are some very good arguments to be made against building Keystone XL. Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress has one of the best one-stop summaries of these arguments, which include legitimate concerns about spills (which TransCanada’s pipelines have lately been troublingly prone to) and questions about the basic necessity of the pipeline itself.
Beyond these technical disputes, though, I do have questions about tactics and motives. Why, exactly, has Albertan bitumen become the poster child for all the climate troubles in the world? Is it fair to characterize Alberta’s oil industry — as NASA’s James Hansen has — as essentially the make or break point for global action on climate change? (Hansen’s exact phrasing: “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”)
It’s not just White House sitters-in, either — several European environmental groups, for example, have made Alberta’s tar sands operations a primary target, and Hollywood titan James Cameron made a high-profile visit to the region last year to see for himself how the industry treats its Na’vi and hometrees.
So: why Alberta? Is it truly “game over” for the planet’s health if the tar sands continue to expand at their current rate (which, when oil prices head north of $100 a barrel, is indeed staggeringly fast)? In a world of fracked shale, decapitated Appalachian mountains, and deepwater drilling rigs, is the extra share of emissions per barrel coming from Alberta’s unconventional crude, which represents less than 2 percent of the global oil production on any given day, actually the fulcrum on which the earth’s climate will or won’t flip toward catastrophe? Or might it also be that the boreal forest of northern Alberta is very far away from the places where it is being so heavily condemned — that it is, just now, a rather convenient species of scapegoat?
My short answer is this: If we don’t end our dependency on fossil fuels and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to somewhere verging on zero by midcentury or so, then it’s likely “game over” for the biosphere, in the sense that we’ll have altered it beyond recognition and possibly beyond its ability to sustain us. The Alberta oil industry is thus — like every other fossil fuel industry on earth — a twilight industry. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that stopping the expansion of any particular geographic or technocratic segment of the fossil fuel regime represents a definitive make-or-break point.
I tend to agree with James Cameron’s assessment, actually. In the wake of his VIP tour of the tar sands, he told Time magazine that the final answer to whether Albertan bitumen can be part of a sustainable energy future “depends on the pace of ... extraction and burning versus the pace of the conversion to a renewable energy economy.” In another interview he said, “It will be a curse if it’s not managed properly. It can also be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta.”
Speaking as an Albertan and a Canadian, I don’t think we’re managing it anywhere near properly. I think we need to understand that the one-time bounty of Alberta’s tarsands should be used to build a clean, sustainable energy regime, not simply to fatten the quarterly statements of multinational oil companies. But I’m not sure if the most effective way to advocate for that shift is a protest movement predicated on the idea that the tar sands are the worst sin in a world of climate transgressions.
I’ll come back to this in my next post. First, I invite you to spend a bit of time investigating a fascinating, admirably in-depth, and innovatively designed reporting project called “Coal: A Love Story.” It’s a sort of interactive documentary, combining short films, infographics and other documents into a mutlifaceted picture of the role of coal in the lives of Americans.
Spend enough time immersed in that online world, and I’m reasonably sure you’ll come to two key understandings: 1) that coal mining and coal-fired electricity production have taken a staggering toll on human and environmental health in America; and 2) that the lives of many millions of Americans are inextricably linked with coal.
The question of how to end our dependency on coal is a valid one, even an urgent one, and I’d argue that the best answer is: as soon as possible, by whatever means are most effective. But that answer is, nevertheless, much more complicated than simply howling STOP. Telling someone who lives and works very far away from you that their way of life is obsolete involves more than simply ordering them to cease and desist.
In my next post, I’ll return to Alberta’s oil industry and its discontents.
To talk up (or down) the tar sands at 140 characters a pop, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.