In the world we must strive to achieve, however difficult or implausible it may seem today, there is no place for a major expansion of the tar sands
Climatologist Andrew Weaver asks me to direct folks to this website and this video, ”in case the tar sands piece that Neil [Swart] and I published yesterday gets spun as a ‘tars sands is good’ story”:
I do think Weaver’s study — “The Alberta oil sands and climate” in Nature Climate Change (subs. req’d) – is a tad confusing. For instance, it doesn’t even include the extra emissions from tar sands extraction in its calculations!! So people who don’t actually read it carefully are likely to misreport its findings.
According to Time magazine, “Pipeline Politics: Are the Oil Sands ‘Game Over’ for the Climate? One Study Says No”:
The good news from the Nature Climate Change paper is that, should environmentalists lose their battle, the consequences might not be quite as bad as they’ve made it out to be.
Except that isn’t what the study finds. Indeed, the final paragraph states
If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels.
In short, if you care about the 2C (3.6F) target, building something like the tar sands pipeline is a really bad idea.
By the way, if you care about a 3C (5.4F) target, building something like the tar sands pipeline is also a really bad idea — see IEA’s Bombshell Warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy.” Risking 3C, roughly 550 ppm [assuming there aren't major carbon-cycle feedbacks], is not a good idea at all, as many studies make clear (see, for instance, New study of Greenland under “more realistic forcings” concludes “collapse of the ice-sheet was found to occur between 400 and 560 ppm” of CO2).
If 7+°F global warming — 10+°F warming over most of U.S. — by century’s end is fine with you, then the tar sands is not worth bothering about. Of course that is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level),” according to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain (see here).
NASA’s James Hansen himself says of the new paper:
“The argument that the currently known amount of carbon in the tar sands pit is small compared to the total fossil fuels burned in two centuries is fallacious and misleading — every single source, even Saudi Arabia, is small compared to the total. If we once get hooked on tar sands and set up infrastructure, the numbers will grow as mining capabilities increase. Tar sands are particularly egregious, because you get relatively less energy per unit carbon emitted and there is associated environmental damage in the mining.”
Indeed, the point of the new study is pretty much the same as the forthcoming paper from Hansen (see figure below). I’d put it this way:
There are big pools of carbon that the world must not burn. Since the United States is responsible for more cumulative CO2 emissions than any other country and has to cut emissions by more than 80% in four decades to do our fair share to avert catastrophe, it’s quite safe to say that from America’s perspective, the huge pool of unconventional oil vastly dirtier than conventional oil up north is definitely on the no-burn list.
The study makes that point in a fairly straightforward way: