Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands has posted a scathing pastoral letter, “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands.”

The letter by Bishop Luc Bouchard concludes, “even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment,” and “the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified.” Equally powerful is who the letter is addressed to:

The critical points made in this letter are not directed to the working people of Fort McMurray but to oil company executives in Calgary and Houston, to government leaders in Edmonton and Ottawa, and to the general public whose excessive consumerist lifestyle drives the demand for oil.

We have met the enemy and he is us!

Other than sticking with the euphemism “oil sands” (see “Canada tries to tar-sandbag Obama on climate” the remarkably detailed and heavily footnoted letter is a brilliant piece of work dissecting what has been called the “biggest global warming crime ever seen.”

Bishop Bouchard notes that “The environmental liabilities that result from the various steps in this process are significant and include”:

  • Destruction of the boreal forest eco-system
  • Potential damage to the Athabasca water shed
  • The release of greenhouse gases
  • Heavy consumption of natural gas
  • The creation of toxic tailings ponds

He writes at length on all five, and concludes

Any one of the above destructive effects provokes moral concern, but it is when the damaging effects are all added together that the moral legitimacy of oil sands production is challenged.

Here is what he says specifically about greenhouse gases:

Very large amounts of natural gas are required to heat water in order to process bitumen. By 2011, it is estimated that the then existing oil sands plants will burn enough natural gas to annually release 80 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is far more than all of the CO2 released annually by all of Canada’s passenger cars.

The oil sands plants will then account for 15% of all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. At present, Alberta produces three times more per capita greenhouse gas emissions than the Canadian average and six times the West European average. The good news is that progress is being made in reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per barrel and the concept of carbon sequestering (pumping CO2 into sealed underground caverns) offers some potential hope in the reduction of emissions. The bad news is that this reduction will not affect the total amount of emissions because new oil sands projects and expansions keep raising the total amount of emissions despite average per barrel reductions.

He further adds:

  • Hedging on our national commitment to reduce greenhouse gases is damaging to Canada’s reputation and is damaging to the environment. Future oil sands developments must be paced so as to allow Canada to meet its international commitments.
  • The enormous amounts of greenhouse gases created by the oil sands processing plants must be offset by national reductions.

Beyond those two, he has another eight “requirements before any further oil sands plants or leases are considered for approval,” but I don’t see how it’s possible for Canada to meet any plausible greenhouse gas targets if it continues to expand the tar sands.

The whole letter is worth reading. A good Canadian news story is here.

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26 Responses to Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production

  1. Beyond immoral.

    Since we are all share the atmosphere, all will suffer the consequences of another’s actions, it becomes a direct assault. It becomes a crime.

  2. paulm says:

    Yes, but this oil was meant for the US! So US needs to stop buying it also.

    Obama is coming up here next month and I think it is basically to tell us to close the thing down and that the US wont be buying any of it.
    Its about time the church got in on this act of denouncing CO2 emissions. They are just as bad as the media. Probably worst as they are suppose to be concerned about us. A bunch of hypocrites?

    The thing is eerily like the book of revelations playing out, you would have thought that they were on to it earlier.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Off-topic, but here is a most remarkable ‘geo-engineering’ solution.

    Global Warming Fix? Some Of Earth’s Climate Troubles Should Face Burial At Sea, Scientists Say

    If it really works as advertised, that is.

  4. Bob Wright says:

    Will oil shale exploitation produce similar problems? Vast as it is, the Colorado watershed is a lot smaller and supports a lot more people than the Athabasca. Sounds like a nightmare.

  5. paulm says:

    Acid oceans ‘need urgent action’

    This is what is going to put a stake through the coffin.

    There are know unknows. And then there are the unknown unknowns.

    I wonder what the later is for AGW?

  6. Will Koroluk says:

    President Obama made several mentions of Alberta’s “dirty oil” during his campaign, I believe, so he’s certainly aware. I think it might be a bit optimistic to think he will tell us to shape up on the tar sands on his Feb. 19 visit. It’s only for a day, and he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be feeling each other out. But I’m optimistic that Canada (and Alberta in particular) will soon be told to clean up the tar sands act of the U.S. will stop buying.

    You’re right, Joe, in your assertion that it’s not plausible to think that any meaningful emission targets can be met as things now stand. Harper’s best so far is to propose an “intensity” target, which simply means that development can continue apace provided that the emissions per barrel of oil are decreased somewhat. So we’d simply arrive at some tipping point a wee bit later. But we’d still get there.

  7. Jake Schmidt says:

    The bishop hits the nail right on the head with this one. That is why many groups are working hard to address tar sands. It is an environmental catastrophe as my colleague points out:

    And to add insult to injury Harper is pushing a “climate deal” with the US that gives some exemption to tar sands (as my colleague points out: Bad deal, bad idea, and bad tar sands!

  8. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    ATTN paulm

    “The Congress shall pass no law with respect to an establish of religion…”

    The Bishop should go back and tend his flock ot what left of it.

    [JR: Wrong country. Back on those meds!]

  9. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    You guys get a map of Canada. The amount of the “enviroment” at the tar sand is squat. Look how much of the enviormnet that has been totally destroyed by Metro Toronto or NYC. You could trash half of Canada or Siberia and nobody would ever notice because the vast majority of people in these countries live in cities And nobody goes or will ever go there.

    If the US won’t buy our oil, the Japanese will and they could careless about the tar sands.

  10. paulm says:

    Dr. Jeff Masters has a piece on ….Opinion polls of climate change…which is interesting.

    His weather buddies, 56% of them, thought “there is a lot of disagreement among climate scientists about whether human activities are a major cause” of global warming”. as oppose to 42% of Americans !!!!!

    “…Many people have a deep-seated belief in the relative insignificance of humans on a planetary scale. Geologists, who take the long view of time over geologic history, are particularly prone to this. Indeed, the planet is vast, and we are but tiny ants crawling upon its surface during a brief moment in geologic time.”

  11. Chris S says:

    Harold Pierce,

    Even if the Catholic bishop were here in the US, and thus your comment made applicable, what part of the First Amendment prevents the free speech of religious leaders from calling out the state for immorality??

    Oh, and paulm,

    While the Book of Revelation isn’t about the “end of the world,” as most people think, it does have a line about “destroying those who destroy the earth.” But we’re all guilty there, so no room for self-righteousness (but plenty for hypocrisy all around)!

  12. Dano says:


    Discussed long ago. Sad but true, but this is the human condition.



  13. Jay Alt says:

    Harold Pierce Jr writes:
    If the US won’t buy our oil, the Japanese will and they could careless about the tar sands.

    1.26.09 – Japan coalition partner presses PM on carbon cap
    Partner in coalition govt wants to set a medium-term carbon cap by April.

    “The Congress shall pass no law with respect to an establish of religion…”

    Moral behavior and respect for other people and creatures aren’t confined to one religion –

  14. paulm says:

    @Dano and still discussed to day…

    Ulrich Beck 1986 in Germany he published Risk Society, and the name has become a touchstone in contemporary sociology.
    science has become so powerful that it can neither predict nor control its effects. It generates risks too vast to calculate. In the era of nuclear fission, genetic engineering and a changing climate, society itself has become a scientific laboratory.
    Bruno Latour, the author of We Have Never Been Modern. He will argue that our very future depends on overcoming a false dichotomy between nature and culture.

  15. paulm says:

    An unknown unknown???

    The collapse of civil society may be upon us even now at 385 ppm. A few of these heat waves every summer will bring nations to there knees….

    Parched: Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in

    Worst heatwave in the country’s history.

    [JR: Will blog on this Monday!]

  16. Barry says:

    The tar-sands climate disaster may, thankfully, be running into some unexpected economic limits, too.

    Even the best tar sands are very expensive to extract…which has made them vulnerable to price swings and credit shortages.

    First, the companies need to sell barrels at around $60 to make enough profit to grow. Also the oil is lower quality so sells for $5 less than sweet crude. When global oil prices are too low…like now…the companies lose big money. Suncor just reported losses running at rate of $1b per year.

    Second, billions need to be invested far in advance for these projects. That takes credit, which has dried up. It takes sustained profits to pay the interest, which has dried up. Suncor just mothballed a project they already sank $7b into. Ouch. Tough to pay interest on that rat hole when you are losing money as well. Tar sands companies have recently cancelled or postponed around $200 billion in new projects.

    Third, all this just gets much worse when you add carbon costs, whether for cap&trade or CCS or both.

    And if you think the spending boom will return when oil prices rise, think again.

    The capitalist profit model for oil has shifted recently. As much as Republicans want oil companies to “drill, drill, drill”, the new economic reality is that is too risky. Companies that went full out on new supply development are stuck with credit nightmares, have billions in mothballed projects, are losing billions on sales and are gasping for breath. The ones that accepted declining production and managed their stock price are raking in huge profits.

    The wild swings in oil prices, coupled with credit crunch, have shifted the economic game-plan for oil companies. No private company is going to make a bigger push towards more production for years…if ever.

    Exxon of course led the way. Last week they reported an all time record profit for a corporation: $45b last year. That is $6 in PROFIT per human on the planet. They made monster profits even as oil price fell 60%. Even while their production fell 3% as well. How? They spent $40b buying back their shares and paying dividends…and only $25b on new production and capital projects. They project flat investment in new production for years. For years they have been pouring far more into stock buy back than into exploration. Meanwhile their production has declined. At this rate they will be a private company in 11 years. With much less oil to sell.

    The new profit model is to keep credit risk low and instead manage your stock for declining production. And the tar sands companies have taken notice. Everywhere I read, tar sands execs are saying how when profits return they are going to “go slow” and “take projects bit by bit” and “you will never hear us talking about $20b project again”.

    Diamond cartels discovered years ago that lowest risk and highest reward came from leaving most in the ground and extracting what was left…slowly.

    Tar sands boosters: the boom is over.

    Everyone else: get your life, biz, nation and climate as free from oil as fast as you can. Delay is going to hurt.

    The CEOs are chanting “buyback, baby, buyback”.

    The Republicans are again so blinded by ideology they are preaching the wrong path for yet another major economic crisis barrelling down at us. It is amazing the voters returned as many as they did to DC. Fewer next time at this rate.

  17. It’s nice that the religionist agrees with us, but since there is no god, he has no moral, or any other, authority. Morals and ethics are a product of evolution. For example: sexual “values” are nothing more than female instinct enforced by the fact that power comes out of a uterus.

  18. As a sophomore undergraduate student in Physics, your homework in Probability and Statistics class may include figuring out when the second coming would be required, assuming that the bible was 100% true in the year zero. That is, when would the bible be down to 50% true? The popular and professors’ answer in 1965 was the year 500. The true answer: A friend of mine was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. As an adult, he came here and stayed. After 25 years, he visited his home town of Budapest. He was unable to communicate with his high school classmates because the Hungarian language had changed so much. The correct answer is less than 25 years. The first gospel was not written down until 50 years after the alleged events and then in a different language. The people who told the story were at about the same level of civilization as “wild Indians”, I mean Native Americans before Columbus got here. We have all played or seen played the game called “Telephone” in which a story is passed down a line of re-tellers. By the Sixth re-telling, the story has no resemblance to the original. The gospel story had to have been re-told at least 6 times before it was mis-translated the first time. [Note that whoever wrote it down the first time was free to write whatever he wanted to. The storytellers were illiterate and unable to check his written text by reading it. Besides that, he wrote in Greek rather than Aramaic.] Conclusion: There is no truth anywhere in the bible, and there never was. There is no way to know what “jesus” or “mohammed” or any other such character actually said or did.

    ALL of the jurisdictions that were formerly in the jurisdiction of religion have been taken over by Science. There is no longer a need to debate the issue. Religion is an unfortunate side effect of having evolved from a chimpanzee-like animal in a very brief 6 or 7 million years. “God” will not save us from the consequences of global warming or an asteroid impact or a tornado because there is no such critter as “god.”. Ethics and morality are instinctive, not derived from religion. Female instinct has greater force in morality than male instinct because the female is in command of the sexual encounter. Look up “Sociobiology”. The origin of the Universe is the subject of Cosmology which is part of astronomy which is part of the science of physics….

    [JR: Final paragraph deleted. Again, I’m not terribly certain what the purpose of this comment is. Outside of science, nothing is scientific — and that includes politics. Nonscientists have every right to opine on climate — indeed, having opinion leaders do so will be critical to solving the problem. If you want to attack his comments on the merits, fine. But religious people are part of the debate, and deserve to be treated with the same respect as anyone else — until of course their actions or words determine otherwise.

    BTW, the question of whether ethics and morality can inherently be derived from science remains open in my mind.]

  19. Asteroid Miner says:

    Religion is caused by any one or more of about half a dozen mental ….

    [JR: I have deleted the rest of this post. The material you site is not terribly scientific nor terribly useful.]

  20. Jay Alt says:

    A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein

    Great Spirit Keep Us Free

  21. JCH says:

    David Benson, I suggested that once on RC. There are businesses that reclaim sunken old-growth logs. They surface in near perfect condition.

  22. @Barry…

    One other possible nail in the tar sands coffin is that ethical investment firms are offering shareholders resolutions at annual meetings for big resource companies like Shell and BP that are trying to force them to slow carbon-heavy investment that doesn’t price the carbon.

    Such resolutions — and the money behind them — have a huge potential to curb growth in the tar sands. I’ve been writing for them for about a year in my day job, but they are largely ignored by the North American media… Although I think Joe wrote about it recently.

    Ceres is one group pushing this agenda, and their work is supported by — interestingly — the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

  23. @PaulM

    It isn’t just Australia that will have drought problems in 2009 …

    California too.

  24. paulm says:

    And its not just the heat but the chaotic nature of the weather, even in the winter…
    Insurance industry is toast now I think.

    Winter Storm Rocks Kentucky, Wrecks State’s Power Grid
    …biggest natural disaster ever to hit the state.
    …With high temperatures well into the 40s through the weekend, much of the ice that had clung to buildings, power lines, trees and roads has disappeared. And another winter storm that had been forecast to hit Monday apparently will bypass the state.

  25. paulm says:

    2008 was the year everyone started to realize GW was real.

    2009 is the year we may realize its too late to do much about the reality of it.