Why Oil Sands Activists Argue The Wrong Points

05/01/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 07/01/2013 05:12 EDT
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A sign directing traffic to the Suncor Energy Inc. base plant stands at the Athabasca Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. Canadian light oil prices retreated from a six-month high on the spot market reached last week as production slipped and refineries prepared for maintenance. Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earth Day 2013 in Quebec saw a very large turnout of very enthusiastic people: some 50,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate their commitment to environmental protection. Such commitment is laudable -- after all, we all want to breath clean air, we all want to drink clean water, and we all want to protect our forests, rivers, streams, lakes, wildlife, and oceans from environmental degradation.

At the same time, Earth Day 2013 saw a lot of misguided ideas being bandied about by environmental activists who are determined to radically shrink Canada's energy production and consumption based upon a single value: preventing anthropogenic climate change. Some of the specific goals discussed at the Earth Day rallies included preventing the eastern transport of oil sands bitumen from Western Canada; reducing energy use; opposing "smart meters" (which are oddly enough, intended to reduce energy use); and "completely changing our energy system."

One should, of course, think through the potential benefits of such actions. Let's consider what benefit Canada might get from taking one action that climate activists want: abandoning the oil sands. And for the sake of argument, let's use their favourite source for data on climate change: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC's best estimate of the impact of doubling greenhouse gas concentrations is a global warming of 3 °C. Under a mid-range IPCC emission scenario, the world is expected to reach that concentration somewhere around 2100.

Now, Canada contributes two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Presuming that current relative contributions to global GHG concentrations hold static (which they won't, as China is poised to dominate global GHG emissions for decades) and we go with the IPCC's estimated warming value for doubled-CO2, all of Canada's emissions would be responsible for a warming of about 0.06 °C if atmospheric concentrations doubled. That is lower than the natural variability of global average temperatures (about .13 °C) -- in other words, too small to measure. But emissions from the oil sands constitute only seven per cent of Canada's emissions. Their contribution to the feared three degrees of warming would be only 0.0042 °C, a change far too small to distinguish from random variability in global average temperatures. Even if oil sand production quintupled, its contribution to warming would be 0.021 °C -- yes, still too small to measure. And that's assuming the IPCC estimates are right: their climate sensitivity estimates have been called into question by recent studies.

And at what cost would we achieve this undetectable climate benefit? The production, consumption, and trade in energy commodities, literally empowers us as individuals, and as a society. It is our access to abundant, affordable energy that enables the high quality of life we enjoy.

Energy production has a considerable impact on Canada's Gross Domestic Product and employment. Energy exports contributed approximately $114 billion to GDP in 2011, or about seven per cent of Canada's total GDP. Energy production and trade also produce government revenues -- revenues that support the social services Canadians demand. Canada's oil and gas producers alone contribute between $17-billion and $20-billion to provincial and territorial governments every year in the form of royalties, land-lease payments, and licenses.

The continuing opposition to energy development in Canada poses a serious threat to our ability to maintain our quality of life, and to pass on still greater quality of life to our children, and grandchildren. We all care about the environment, and we all want to protect it, but that protection needs to be based on a rational understanding of what environmental benefits are attendant on various actions, and what price we're willing to pay for those benefits.

There are certainly some actions that Canada can take to foster adaptation and build resilience to potential climate change. But bankrupting Canada's energy sector to avert an undetectable amount of warming that may (or may not) happen far in the future can hardly be considered a rational act. In fact, it is likely to have consequences that cause more, not less environmental destruction. Plenty of research (not to mention recent polling) shows that people are more willing to protect the environment when they feel economically prosperous than when they don't. Depriving Canadians of the benefits of energy production and trade is likely to reduce their interest in environmental protection, rather than pique it.