The anti-oil sands lobby wants you to think that there's no greater carbon emissions problem than the oil sands. They march in the streets, break into buildings, get themselves arrested, and then compare themselves to the heroes of civil rights movement -- all the while protecting market share for the world's conflict oil producers -- because they claim to be fighting some historic battle in the name of climate change. Their earnestness has persuaded eco-chic, but ignorant celebrities like Robert Redford, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Daryl Hannah to take up their cause.
Except there is a bigger emitter of carbon dioxide right in our own backyards. Much bigger. It's called electricity, and a new report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation shows just how minor the oil sands' emissions footprint is relative to other energy sources.
A report from an organization tasked with overseeing environmental practices in Canada, the United States and Mexico says electricity-generating plants that run on fossil fuels in North America account for 33 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions originating on this continent, and six per cent globally.
By comparison, the Canadian government estimates the country's oil sands-mining operations account for just 0.1 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, or 6.5 per cent of Canada's.
Six percent of global emissions for electricity versus 0.1% for the oil sands. That means that North American electricity generation emits 60 times more CO2 than the oil sands. And where are the celebrities and the eco-martyrs standing up against coal-fired power plants? You won't find them. It's not hard to figure out why. For one, as the Commission's Executive Director Evan Lloyd points out, the oil sands are an easier target because they're located in a concentrated area and involve a smaller number of players (no doubt it also has something to do with the fact that the oil sands are being developed by corporations, and not the kind of public utilities that frequently run power plants).
But it surely has something to do with the fact that protesting against oil is a more palatable and fashionable cause: People have been conditioned to feel guilty about driving their cars, and most people don't get to see the critical role that oil plays in their lives every day -- such as growing their food, delivering their food to market, facilitating medicine and health care and powering the economy. Telling people they can live without oil -- even if the fact is that our society can't -- is an easier sell than trying to convince them they can live without affordable electricity.
And yet, surviving without fossil fuel-powered electricity is just as unrealistic right now as living without oil. It's even more unrealistic, actually; while we have established alternatives to coal power in the form of hydro, nuclear, lower emission gas power, and even some marginally economical geothermal and wind power, there are still no practical alternatives to oil when it comes to powering trucks, airplanes and ocean liners.
The anti-oil sands agitators know that electricity is a much bigger emitter than the oil sands, but they also know that they won't get much sympathy -- or money -- from the public by going after state utility companies while warning families that it's time to start living without their washing machines, televisions and lights. That's why you won't see Robert Redford or Daryl Hannah protesting against electric plants, even if those happen to be a much bigger part of the issue they claim to care about than the oil sands are. They'll stick with the charade of protesting ethical, Canadian oil as if it were somehow a critical cause for concern. And the conflict oil producers of the world will thank them for it.
Follow Kathryn Marshall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lawsome_