Confusing Climate Study Actually Makes Strong Case Against Tar Sands — If We Want To Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming

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:

To have a 66% chance of limiting warming to less than the 2 °C limit put forth in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, one carbon– climate modelling study estimated that total future global carbon emissions should be limited to less than 5.9×1017 g C (ref. 9). If this amount were to be distributed equally among the current global population, the resulting allowable per capita cumulative carbon footprint would be 85 tonnes of carbon. The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oil-sand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint. For comparison, by fully using only the proven reserves of the Alberta oil sands, the current populations of the United States and Canada would achieve a per capita cumulative carbon footprint of 64 tonnes of carbon.

Let me clear up one serious confusion about the study right now.  The study does not actually include the extra emissions from tar sands extraction in its core calculations, as it states clearly:

Additional emissions resulting from natural gas, diesel and electricity use during bitumen extraction, upgrading and refining have not been included here, but could increase these numbers (see Supplementary Information).

The authors separately do a calculation on their website that indicate those extra emissions would add some 17% to the emissions they calculate.

What this means is that if the U.S. and Canada use only the proven reserves of the Alberta oil sands — 170 billion barrels, which we could do this century if production is quadrupled — then in fact we’d hit 75 tonnes of carbon per capita cumulative carbon footprint.  The point is, even this modest exploitation of the tar sands — a small fraction of the total “oil in place” — would blow out any chance of the U.S. and Canada contributing our share to the 2C target.  Or a 3C target.

That is the point Hansen and McKibben and I and many others have been making over and over again:

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands as Nocera advocates — represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear. [Estimated reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011).]

This is also pretty clear from Weaver’s paper.  But it is presented in a way that the global warming hand-wavers — those who never tell you what their temperature or concentration target is — can, well, wave away with their hands:

As you see, by including all of the coal and gas, it looks like the tar sands make such a tiny contribution as to be insignificant. But the tar sands contributions is only insignificant in a world with a climate that is ruined, one that simply will not support 9 billion or more people.  In short, if we destroy civilization with coal, tar sands isn’t a big deal. Woo-hoo!

As Bill McKibben puts it:

Today’s study is akin to saying: “True, smoking six packs a day is going to kill you. But if you want to make certain you die, smoke a hundred packs a day. And if you really want to make sure you die tomorrow, lie down in front of a train.”

Time magazine reports

Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart of the University of Victoria in Canada first modelled the warming impact of burning the 170 or so billion barrels of crude believed to be technically recoverable from the Albertan oil sands. They found that burning all of that carbon would produce just 0.02 to 0.05 C of warming. As David Biello of Scientific American points out, global warming to date is 15 times greater than that.

Should energy companies figure out a way to mine and burn all 1.8 trillion barrels of oil believed to be in the oil sands, the warming would obviously be greater—but not that much greater. Weaver and Swart estimate all that oil would lead to an additional 0.36 C of warming. Given that many scientists believe we need to prevent 2 C of warming above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic effects—and that we’re already a little less than halfway there—the oil sands seem to represent an important but not decisive front in the climate battle.

The 170 billion isn’t the technically recoverable oil. It’s the “economically viable proven reserve,” which will rise over time as oil prices rise (and extraction technology improves).

And burning it, including all related emissions from extraction and the like, is probably at least 0.04 C of warming, which is about 10% of the total additional warming we can risk if we are sane.

So just the “economically viable proven reserve” we could well burn this century are a big, big deal. The oil-in-place is an unmitigated disaster.

Now you can certainly argue that we aren’t going to stabilize at 2C, but that is a political conclusion and has no bearing on whether climate scientists and climate hawks are right that going beyond 2C is dangerous and immoral.

Certainly if we do going beyond 2C it’d be nuts not to try as hard as humanly possible to stabilize at, say, 2.5C (4.5°F), which again means we need to stop wasting staggering amounts of money to expand  dirty fossil fuel resources like the tar sands.

David Biello of Scientific American writes on the study with this sub-hed, “The Keystone XL pipeline wouldn’t be a major environmental calamity, but oil addiction is.”  He concludes:

Nevertheless, building the pipeline keeps us in the carbon habit, through which the U.S. burns roughly 20 million barrels of oil a day along with copious quantities of coal and natural gas. Ending our fossil fuel addiction is the only way to truly combat climate change.

So Keystone is no big deal, yet we need to end our fossil fuel addiction. But if we are planning to end our fossil fuel addiction in a timely enough fashion to avert catastrophic warming, then, as the study says, we ought to be “avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels” which would certainly include Keystone.

Bottom Line: In the world we must strive to achieve, however difficult or implausible it may seem today, expanded extraction of the tar sands has no place.

30 Responses to Confusing Climate Study Actually Makes Strong Case Against Tar Sands — If We Want To Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming

  1. Chase says:

    It doesn’t help that the right wing thinks global warming is a complete myth.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    It really is an addiction, and most notably in one particular way: It’s really hard to stop saying “I have to kick this habit” and then actually refuse to take the next drink, snort the next line, stick the next needle in your arm, or swallow the next pill. The road to recovery requires that some individual temptation be the first one you have the strength and maturity and enlightened self-interest to refuse. So far, humanity seems to be almost completely unwilling to do more than (very) slightly reduce our indulgences.

  3. catman306 says:

    Thanks, Joe. This may prove to be a useful link later in the week when the deniers chime in at the local level.

  4. I am not sure how much it will help… maybe not at all… but NYU’s Jay Rosen offered some advice to CNN’s John King today. Ask Rick Santorum to justify his statement that global warming is a myth. You can, and should, all do the same by signing that petition.

    It would be great to have all 700,000 pipeline protestors sign this.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    must see vid….

    Garth Lenz: The true cost of (tar) oil | Video on

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    Its articles covering outcomes like these in serious magazines like this which were missing 10yrs ago… this would have definitely set the stage for the discussion and debate on GW police and public acceptance back then….

    Climate Portals via Climate Chaos
    ‎”Humans, seeking a technical fix at this late hour, may have lost control of their environment, a lesson about the importance of preemptive action to forestall or reverse an impending environmental disaster. This may be particularly true now that unpredictable climate change appears likely across the globe…. That is a position that may become familiar to people around the world in years to come.”

    Runaway Devils Lake » American Scientist

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Good job, Joe. This is an example of the global importance of this blog. All week, I have been listening to fake experts play games with statistics to try to downplay the carbon emissions of tar sands oil.

    Someone needed to give them a good spanking. Let’s hope that enough people were listening.

  8. Gil Friend says:

    If we posit that Time is trying to do a good job of serious journalism, what needs to happen to increase the odds of them not getting a story like this so wrong?

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    I don’t think the calculation includes the destruction of boreal forest which is a major carbon sink.

    You could ad also the dismantling of infrastructure and environmental aspects that have to be addressed in waste and reclamation.

  10. Paul Magnus says:

    Climate Portals shared a link.

    Oilsands pose ‘significant environmental and financial risk’ to Alberta, says PCO
    Collateral damage from Canada’s booming oilsands sector may be irreversible, posing a “significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta,” says a secret memorandum prepared for the federal government’s top bureaucrat.

  11. Paul Magnus says:

    The industry has suggested that a shift in oilsands extraction to use steam to remove synthetic crude oil from natural bitumen deposits on site can reduce land disruption and provide for reductions in energy and emissions. But the memo, prepared for Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council Office — the lead department in the federal government’s bureaucracy — said this shift is actually accelerating the industry’s impact on climate change, with emissions growth projected to be greater over the next decade than all other Canadian economic sectors combined.

    “While the industry has taken steps to reduce emissions, the shift from mining to in-situ production, which is almost three times as emissions intensive as mining, is resulting in a continued acceleration of emissions from this sector,” said the memo.


  12. Paul Magnus says:

    There is also this….

    Climate Portals
    Canada’s oil sands project has created an “urban heat island” effect, drying out a city-sized area and raising the local temperature by more than a degree.

    The Tyee – Oil Sands Produces Its Own Heat Island Effect
    By Andrew Nikiforuk, 8 Feb 2012,

  13. Lara says:

    Some serious news related to recent articles here;

    I think a lot of blogs will need to post retractions because of this. Quite sad.

  14. Neil Swart says:

    Dear Joe, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and readers,

    I know you have spoken to Andrew. I would like to add my 2 cents worth if I may.

    Firstly, let me say that this study arose out of a simple curiosity about the amount of warming potential in the tarsands. In the commentary, I tried to make it clear that the per capita emissions associated with the oil sands are significant. As you note, our conclusion calls for a rapid transition to renewables, and no further commitments to tarsands (or general fossil fuel) infrastructure.

    The point was certainly NOT to imply that tarsands emissions are insignificant. I’m sure you will appreciate that by looking at our website. I appreciate that has largely been the media message, but it has not been my message.

    Please also note, that some of our chosen language, and the well-to-wheel warming results were removed through a tough peer-review process. Thus, the best we could do was to make those available on the website.

    If there is any feeling that I / we were taking a swipe at people opposed to the tar-sands on climate-grounds, please let me assure you that is not the case.

    -Neil Swart

  15. Paul Magnus says:

    Things can get even crazy….

    Energy Alberta Corporation – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Alberta Corporation was created in 2005 to provide nuclear power to the energy-intensive development of the oil sands resources in northern Alberta.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They also do not care, not a scintilla, what happens after they are dead, even those who did their duty by inheritable idiocy, and propagated themselves.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Most of humanity cannot afford any ‘indulgences’. They are flat out not starving.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I would doubt that ‘Time’ or any other organ of the business owned MSM is doing anything but serving the money power of Big Business. The 25 trillion or so in fossil fuel assets weighs heavy on their minds as they hit the keyboard. Too much ‘free thinking’ or ‘thought crime’, and there goes a promising career (or several) as a ‘stenographer to power’.

  19. fj says:

    yes, stop climate change at wartime speed now.

  20. Joe Romm says:

    Why retractions?

  21. Leif says:

    History has proven that most people love war if they do not have to be the cannon farder. Economies love war. The WW III promoting the Green Awakening Economy has the ability to hype the economy with Infrastructure build out and control of capitalistic & corporate profit. Conscripted labor with universal health care and and PX privileges and military training abilities can help the foot soldiers make ends meet with low wages. The Nation can get a green economy at lowest cost. The military has ~650+ billion allocated dollars that could be tapped for the true National Security of not only the Nation but the people of the world. Nobody needs to be blown asunder. Health costs of “normal” interventions could be put to good use not only here but around the world re-leaving tensions. All the needed presidents are in place. This just scratches the surface, what is not to like? Think Green not Black… Humanity has proven time and again that we are great at killing, lets try a different course just once. We just might surprise ourselves…

  22. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m with you on this, Joe. Gleick made a mistake by offering his contrite and a little sickening apology. We are up against malevolent opponents, and there is nothing wrong with releasing documents provided by an insider.

    Remember the Pentagon Papers, collected by Ellsberg and printed by The New York Times? They were treated as heroes. The Times would not do that now, but it’s a good thing that we have blogs.

  23. Dan says:

    Neil, I heard an interview this morning with Andrew Weaver on the CBC Radio program “The Current”. He did a fairly good job of clarifying the intent of the Nature study, and indicating that societies everywhere need to break the fossil fuel addition (including not building additional Alberta tar sands infrastructure). Unfortunately, my quick review of the media response suggests that most journalists have misunderstood your study. It is incumbent upon you and Andrew, therefore, to continue to clarify this issue for journalists, including setting the record straight on the media spin.

  24. David Lewis says:

    Joe’s point: “The 170 billion isn’t the technically recoverable oil. It’s the “economically viable proven reserve,” which will rise over time as oil prices rise (and extraction technology improves)” is exactly right.

    The 170 billion barrels figure was calculated by the EIA in 2006 based on an oil price of $62 per barrel. The total resource is an order of magnitude larger. Clive Mather, the former CEO of Shell Canada has said he believes the reserves could be classified as 2 trillion barrels now.

    Encana is saying they have the technology now to produce 60 – 70% of the 2 trillion barrels – see this video. A breakthrough technology that would reduce the energy required to process the oil that was reported by the NYTimes not long ago is described in this video.

    Note that the Weaver study shows this single deposit as containing roughly as much carbon as the total global remaining conventional oil reserve in all existing deposits. And that is valid only as long as you make his assumption that it is one tenth the size Shell Canada’s former CEO says it is.

    Joe cites Dr. Kevin Anderson of Tyndall in the UK. More people should study Anderson. Anderson isn’t saying if the tarsands is exploited and business as usual continues on for some time then we’ll be committed to the dire scenario Joe quotes, i.e. a climate state “incompatible with organized global community… likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’… devastating to the majority of ecosystems & [with] a high probability of not being stable”.

    Anderson is saying that if we accept what “all” studies say about how quickly emissions can be reduced, and if we put valid numbers into the projections of how large the infrastructure is now, and how fast it is expanding now, what he finds is that we are committed to his dire scenario as of now. We face an “impossible” future he says, i.e. a very likely unstable 4 degrees C warming, and we have an “impossible” task ahead of us if we were to try to avoid it by emission reductions.

    He says this: “…this is not a message of futility, but a wake-up call of where our rose-tinted spectacles have brought us. Real hope, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a bare assessment of the scale of the challenge we now face”

    So any expansion of the fossil fueled infrastructure at this point adds to the certainty that it is “game over” already.

    What I find disturbing as I consider what it means as production of “unconventional” tarsand oil in Canada and the “fracked” gas and oil from shale in the US is this: deposits like these are not unique to North America. This technology that is being developed here will eventually be deployed in the rest of the world.

    About 84% of the Earth’s surface is not North America.

  25. PeterW says:

    Thanks Joe for this follow up.

    t’s very interesting how this study has been received in Canada. Sure you have the usual suspects spouting off that this shows the Tar Sands aren’t that bad, but you also have the first talk of Global Warming in the Canadian press in some time.

    Also, you have the press talking about Alberta’s coal and Ontario’s plan to get rid of coal generation. The press hasn’t talked about getting rid of coal generation in a very long time.

    In a weird way this may start the discussion in Canada again.

  26. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Weaver and Swart have handed the pro-fossil expansionists a club to beat on climate activists with their MESSAGING that burning the tar sands is not a big deal for climate change.

    Can either Weaver or Swart name a single carbon deposit on earth that qualifies in their thinking as being a big deal for climate?

    One of the largest coal deposits in the world is the powder river basin deposit in USA. The USGS in 2008 put the economic recoverable reserves from this massive deposit at 20 billion tonnes of CO2. Hmmm, that is a lot less than the 80 billion tonnes of CO2 from tar sands.

    So I guess the powder river coal is now just not a big deal for climate change either. We can alert the coal activists in USA that it is time to quit focusing on such a tiny part of the problem.

    Weaver on CBC actually said he felt there was too much emphasis on tar sands and not enough on USA coal by climate activists. Wow. So I’m waiting for him to tell us which coal deposit in USA he thinks is too big.

    What a disaster for climate efforts.

  27. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Neil, first of all the public can’t easily read your report because you published in a fee-for-access journal. It doesn’t matter what you wrote if the public can’t read it and the press and fossil fuel interests misconstrue it. Did you not expect this problem?

    Secondly, there is a fundamental messaging problem based on Dr. Weavers quotes and study information I have heard in the press. The message is that the tar sands are too small a carbon deposit to make a significant impact on climate change. Dr. Weaver even said on CBC that there is too much emphasis on tar sands and not enough on USA coal for example.

    But what USA coal deposit even comes close to the tar sands in carbon content of economic reserves? Seriously, can you name one? Powder River Basin coal is a quarter the carbon of tar sands. Why not a message that Powder River Basic coal will only warm the planet 0.01C?

    In fact the economic reserves in the tar sands are six times larger than in all the economic coal reserves in Canada. Will you be publishing a paper saying Canadian coal reserves are trivial in their effect on climate change? Maybe Weaver can go back on the radio and say we should stop focusing on Canadian coal so much.

    The banner headline of the Globe and Mail on my local newstand: “Sciences comes to the rescue of the oil sands.”

  28. Barry Saxifrage says:

    One of the biggest stumbling blocks in climate action is that nobody in the world controls enough carbon to “make a difference”. Yet most of these “insignificant” sources must be left in the ground and their value abandoned. It is vitally “necessary” that deposits that are not “sufficient” to solve the problem by themselves are not developed.

    The messaging on this paper is that the tar sand deposit — despite being one of the biggest single carbon deposits on earth — is insignificant.

    Hansen’s response to the paper is correct. It is a messaging disaster.

  29. So if I understand this correctly, we have about 1.2 degrees Celsius to go to reach 2 degrees C of warming, which is the largest level that can reasonably be thought of as at least not too awfully dangerous. There is enough carbon in this one field to go about a third of the way from where we are to where we don’t want to be.
    Since we are sort of drunkenly staggering forward anyway, why should we want to start two steps from the cliff edge rather than three, where we are now?
    If someone asks about the effects of breaking into the tar sands, that sounds like as good a way to put it as any.

  30. Paul Magnus says:

    “…it doesn’t even include the extra emissions from tar sands extraction in its calculations!! .”

    Are there any figures on wat the extra or total emissions are for the oil sands?