02/29/2012 08:56 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

How Much Of An Environmental Bad Guy Are The Alberta Oil Sands?

Garth Lenz

If some of the headlines were to be believed, a recent report from one of Canada's more prominent climate scientists seemed to suggest that maybe the Alberta oilsands won't be such a big environmental bad guy after all.

Coal is really the black devil when it comes to pumping greenhouse gases into the air.

Trouble was, that's not exactly what the research published in the journal Nature Climate Change said.

The research by Andrew Weaver, considered one of Canada's top climate scientists, and Neil Swart, one of his PhD students at the University of Victoria, was very specific.

It looked at the impact on the climate of burning specific fossil fuels. It did not take into account any other associated activities such as the environmental cost of extracting, refining or transporting these fuels to far-off markets, which can be considerable in the case of something like the northern Alberta oilsands.

As well, some of the conclusions — that burning all the oilsands bitumen in existence would add 0.36 C to world temperatures, while burning all the world's coal would add 14.8 C — seemed somewhat obvious, if perhaps irrelevant, considering there are far more reserves of coal in the world than there are oilsands.

The authors themselves acknowledge "coal's significance is due to the large tonnage available, together with its high carbon content."

Weaver, who is anything but an apologist for the oilsands, told CBC Radio's The Current that "the role of the scientist is to inform policy discussions," and that he didn't think his research "can be used for or against" the development of the oilsands.

But early media reports framed the findings somewhat differently, with some suggesting the research was coming close to a green light for oilsands development.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers welcomed the Weaver/Swart report. "It's very positive from a contextual standpoint," says spokesman Travis Davies.

"If you look at what has happened here, you've got a very credible third-party academic that has been working with good data and arrived at a very, drastically, dramatically different conclusion in terms of oilsands greenhouse gas impacts than say, some of the Hollywood celebrities we've seen talking about it lately.

"You cannot go out there and say this is a carbon bomb that is going to push us over the edge. It just clearly isn't."

Carbon bomb?

That "carbon bomb" rhetoric from critics of oilsands development had, in fact, informed some of Weaver's research. But he said that, in the end, the results that he and Swart found surprised him.

"I had heard the rhetoric that the tarsands would basically, if it was combusted, lead to game over for the planet Earth," Weaver told The Current.

But "the numbers came out quite small," he said.

"This doesn't mean of course that what's going on in northern Alberta is something that I support.

"It means that when we look at one aspect of the problem, which is the emissions, it's not as big on the global scene as perhaps some might think.

"And again with respect to Canada it is our single fastest growing sector of emissions. So from a Canadian perspective it is still very big."

Beyond mere burning

Weaver's more cautionary tone, however, wasn't the message that came across in many of the early news reports.

"There was some misinterpretation. There definitely was some spin that's probably, if I can be cynical, deliberate," says Shawn Marshall, Canada Research Chair in climate change at the University of Calgary.

"At face value it's actually a pretty simple scientific study: here is the volume of these different resources. If we combust all known quantities of oil, gas, coal, this is how much CO2 goes into the atmosphere and that's really all they were out to say in that study."

But any discussion of the oilsands inevitably goes beyond the burning of the bitumen. There are also the huge amounts of energy needed to get it out of the ground, refine it and move it by pipelines to get it to the markets.

Weaver, who holds the Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis at the University of Victoria, says the decision to leave those considerations out of the commentary was deliberate.

"These would come from the other resource pools and shouldn't be double-counted," he wrote in the Toronto Star. "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 tarsands would increase by about 20 per cent. But even this is uncertain."

Other researchers have put numbers on the environmental impact of the oilsands beyond the straight burning of the bitumen.

The Edmonton-based Pembina Institute, for example, says "average greenhouse gas emissions for oilsands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States."

Largely, that is because it currently takes about 28 cubic metres of natural gas to produce one barrel of bitumen from the in situ oilsands projects, and a bit less for the smaller strip-mined projects, according to the National Energy Board.

By 2015, the NEB estimates, oilsands extraction is expected to consume upwards of 40 million cubic metres of natural gas per day, or about 10 per cent of current Western Canadian production, an energy input that is usually factored in when scientists talk about the oilsands environmental impact.

The thorny stuff

Marshall says there is a lot of "information and misinformation" around the whole oilsands/climate issue.

"The Weaver paper at least tries to set some things straight on the easiest part of the problem: quantifying what is in the ground, in terms of carbon content.

"After that things get thornier."

That thorniness lies in the wide ranges of factors needed to estimate the environmental and the climatic impacts of different energy sources.

Along with a full life-cycle analysis for each resource, you'd also want to look at the direct impacts on air and water quality, the landscape, ecology.

Marshall talked to Weaver after his report was published.

"He's been under stress and under fire. He finds it really interesting to be on the other side in a way. And he didn't foresee that," says Marshall.

"He just ... didn't realize the extent to which it's getting spun to where he's now an oilsands advocate. So he finds himself uncomfortable in that position, I think."

When it comes to the science of the oilsands, no one, it seems, gets a free pass.

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