Our New Study: Global Warming From Coal Worse than Oil Sands

02/21/2012 09:08 EST | Updated 04/22/2012 05:12 EDT

In the midst of the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline last fall, two of us -- Neil Swart, a PhD student in my lab, and I -- undertook to measure the likely impact of oil sands development upon world climate. On September 28, we submitted the results of our analysis for publication and after five months working its way through the peer review paper, the final article appeared in Nature Climate Change on Sunday. We received no funding for this research.

We asked the question as to how much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuel resources. Here is what we calculated for the following resources:

  1. tar sands under active development: woud add 0.01°C to world temperatures.
  2. economically viable tar sands reserve: would add 0.03°C to world temperatures.
  3. entire tar sands oil in place which includes the uneconomical and the economical resource: would add 0.36°C to world temperatures
  4. total unconventional natural gas resource base: would add 2.86°C to world temperatures
  5. total coal resource base: would add 14.8°C to world temperatures

In other words: Coal presents a climate challenge that is much greater than that presented by the oil sands.

Our overarching conclusion is that as a society, we will live or die by our future consumption of coal. The idea that we're going to somehow run out of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels is misplaced. We'll run out of our ability to live on the planet long before we run out of them.

Some might point out that our published calculations do not account for the additional greenhouse gases arising from the extraction, transportation, and refining of the tar sand resource. This was deliberate.

The so-called "wells-to-wheels" approach to tar-sands mining includes the natural gas, diesel, and coal emissions that arise during extraction and refining, together with the transportation of the oil. However, these would come from the other resource pools and shouldn't be double-counted. The relative mix of such fuels would obviously change in the future as well. We wanted to be consistent to ensure that emissions and subsequent warming from all resources were calculated the same way.

Nevertheless, if you account for the additional "wells-to-wheels" emissions, our estimates of potential global warming from the tar stands would increase by about 20%. But even this is uncertain. If all refining, extraction, and transportation were done using renewable energy or nuclear power, the number would be close to 0%. If it were all done using electricity from inefficient coal-fired generators, it would be higher. Once more the key message is clear: We will live or die by our future consumption of coal. And if everyone in the world had similar per-capita emissions as North Americans, it will be sooner than later. More information on this topic is available on Neil Swart's website.

I have always said that the tar sands are a symptom of a bigger problem. The bigger problem is our societal dependence on fossil fuels. As we use up the easy-to-find resources, we start going to more extreme measures to access what is left. The result is increasingly environmentally hazardous approaches to extraction. For example, this image illustrates the breadth of boreal destruction associated with tar sands exploration.

None of this discussion takes away from the profound ecological and social concerns involved with the development of the tar sands that I attempt to articulate here.

I am convinced that the Canadian government can do a better job of regulating the tar sands industry to ensure that these ecological and social concerns are properly addressed. In addition, the industry represents the single biggest growing sector of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions.

The atmosphere has traditionally been viewed as an unregulated dumping ground. There is no cost associated with emitting greenhouse gases. Economists call this a market failure. To correct this failure, a price is needed on emissions. This allows individuals and businesses to find the most cost-effective means of reducing their own emissions. In fact, the oil and gas industry have repeatedly called upon the federal government to introduce such emissions pricing. They want some certainty as to "the rules" under which they must operate.

Does our study mean that I am in favour of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in northern British Columbia? No. For the record, I am strongly opposed to it for four reasons:

  1. We are shipping our natural resource offshore instead of ensuring energy security in North America.
  2. The pipeline would go through the world's last great temperate rainforest that should be protected.
  3. Tanker traffic along the BC coast is an accident waiting to happen as the waters are hazardous to navigate. Environmental destruction would be profound when a spill occurred.
  4. Virtually every First Nation is opposed to the project. The Northern Gateway pipeline would go through their traditional land and their wishes must be respected.

In terms of the Keystone pipeline, I believe the industry was arrogant in its approach to the very legitimate concerns of First Nations, Nebraskans, and other Canadians and Americans. For example, it is troubling to contemplate building a new pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer. Some have also raised legitimate concerns about the social cost of exporting jobs to the United States instead of building refineries locally to process the crude. In the end, it seems that compromises might be reached in the case of Keystone XL. But it is hard for me to see any possible room for compromise in the case of Northern Gateway.

It would be a huge mistake to interpret our results as some kind of a "get out of jail free" card for the tar sands. While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally, the tar sands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet it's international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader. The world needs to transition away from fossil fuels if it wants to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate system. That means coal, unconventional gas, and unconventional oil all need to be addressed.

Correction: A previous headline stated coal is 1500 times worse for the environment than oil sands. The correct number is 41.

Top polluting provinces