Tag Archives: Tar Sands

Tar sands in Alberta and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Repost from NATUREInternational Weekly Journal of Science
[Editor: a friend sent this excellent overview of policy struggles behind the tar sands debacle in Alberta and the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S.  Significant quote: “As scientists spanning diverse disciplines, we urge North American leaders to take a step back: no new oil-sands projects should move forward unless developments are consistent with national and international commitments to reducing carbon pollution. Anything less demonstrates flawed policies and failed leadership. With such high stakes, our nations and the world cannot afford a series of ad hoc, fragmented decisions.” – RS]

Energy: Consider the global impacts of oil pipelines

25 June 2014, by Wendy J. Palen, Thomas D. Sisk, Maureen E. Ryan, Joseph L. Árvai, Mark Jaccard, Anne K. Salomon, Thomas Homer-Dixon, & Ken P. Lertzman
Debates over oil-sands infrastructure obscure a broken policy process that overlooks broad climate, energy and environment issues, warn Wendy J. Palen and colleagues.

The debate over the development of oil sands in Alberta, Canada, is inflaming tensions in and between Canada and the United States.

In April, US President Barack Obama deferred a decision on the fate of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, despite escalating pressure to approve it from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The contentious pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels per day of partially refined bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, through the US Midwest, to Gulf Coast refineries. Harper is also facing a controversial domestic battle over his approval on 17 June of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, to connect Alberta with a port on British Columbia’s remote Pacific coast.

But drama over the pipelines obscures a larger problem — a broken policy process. Both Canada and the United States treat oil-sands production, transportation, climate and environmental policies as separate issues, assessing each new proposal in isolation. A more coherent approach, one that evaluates all oil-sands projects in the context of broader, integrated energy and climate strategies, is sorely needed.

Although Keystone XL and Northern Gateway are among the first major North American projects to highlight flaws in oil-sands policies, more than a dozen other projects are on the drawing board. Meanwhile, the US government is considering its first oil-sands leases on federal lands, as bitumen mining expands on state land in Utah’s Uinta Basin.

As scientists spanning diverse disciplines, we urge North American leaders to take a step back: no new oil-sands projects should move forward unless developments are consistent with national and international commitments to reducing carbon pollution. Anything less demonstrates flawed policies and failed leadership. With such high stakes, our nations and the world cannot afford a series of ad hoc, fragmented decisions.

Incremental decisions

Current public debate about oil-sands development focuses on individual pipeline decisions. Each is presented as an ultimatum — a binary choice between project approval and lost economic opportunity. This approach artificially restricts discussions to only a fraction of the consequences of oil development, such as short-term economic gains and job creation, and local impacts on human health and the environment. Lost is a broader conversation about national and international energy and economic strategies, and their trade-offs with environmental justice and conservation.

This pattern of incremental decisions creates the misguided idea that oil-sands expansion is inevitable. By restricting the range of choices, governments have allowed corporations to profit from one-off policy decisions, leading to a doubling of oil-sands production in Alberta in the past decade, with production forecast to double again to 3.9 million barrels per day in the coming decade1. The collective result of these decisions is unnecessarily high social, economic and environmental costs.

When judged in isolation, the costs, benefits and consequences of a particular oil-sands proposal may be deemed acceptable. But impacts mount with multiple projects. The cumulative effects of new mines, refineries, ports, pipelines, railways and a fleet of transoceanic supertankers are often at odds with provincial, state, federal or international laws protecting clean water, indigenous rights, biodiversity and commitments to control carbon emissions.

Oil-sands development in Alberta, for example, has irreversibly transformed more than 280 square kilometres of the boreal landscape by burning or degrading peatlands covering oil-sands deposits2. Such ecosystems represent long-term carbon sinks that require thousands of years to develop. The development has also elevated waterway concentrations of chemical contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic compounds that are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms3, 4, and has been associated with a tenuous but troubling rise in rare cancers in downstream indigenous communities5.

Major infrastructure such as pipelines requires decades of operation to recoup the initial investment, fostering expansion of oil-sands projects upstream and refineries and ports downstream. For example, the proposed US$5.4-billion Keystone XL pipeline would drive further oil-sands extraction by providing access to Gulf Coast refineries and profitable export markets (see ‘Big decisions’). Such investments create a ‘lock-in’ that commits society to decades of environmental degradation, increased risk of contamination and spills, and unsustainable carbon pollution.

Oil-sands production has already caused dramatic increases in carbon pollution. The United States and Canada have committed to the same 2020 greenhouse-gas emissions target: a 17% decrease relative to 2005 levels. But Canada’s agencies predict that it will miss its target by 122 million tonnes annually6, 7. Although emissions in many sectors are falling, those from oil-sands production are predicted to triple from 2005 by 2020, from 34 million to 101 million tonnes.

Smart steps

Despite these predictions, public discussions around emissions from expanding oil-sands production are being muted. Since 2010, public hearings on proposed pipelines, including Northern Gateway, the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, and the Line 9B pipeline reversal in southern Ontario, have formally excluded testimony by experts or the public about carbon emissions and climate (see go.nature.com/mpx2sc).

We propose two steps to improve decisions about the development of oil sands. First, North American citizens and policy-makers must enact policies at national, state and provincial levels that acknowledge the global consequences of expanding oil-sands develop­ment. Legislated constraints on carbon pollution (such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) based on current climate science will help to ensure that the full social costs of carbon combustion are incorporated into investment decisions about energy and infrastructure. This will help companies and policy-makers to better judge trade-offs between investment in oil-sands projects, renewables and energy-conservation programmes, while catalysing innovation in low-carbon technologies.

Second, policy-makers need to adopt more transparent and comprehensive decision-making processes that incorporate trade-offs among conflicting objectives such as energy and economic development, environmental protection, human health and social justice. The decision sciences offer pathways, from problem identification to policy implementation, which can encompass a wide range of public values and address multiple drivers, linked effects and nested scales of cause and effect.

Decision-support tools are being developed for exploring how outcomes, priorities and trade-offs shift under different future energy scenarios. Possibilities might include the approval or rejection of pipeline proposals, more stringent low-carbon fuel standards, carbon taxes, or a spike or drop in global demand for Canadian oil8. Such tools can be used to identify thresholds where development should shift from one energy option to another, and evaluate which investments are most robust given environmental, social and economic policies and their effects on energy supply and demand8. The territorial government in the Canadian north is using these tools to identify energy options that protect the Arctic environment and developing economy, while meeting the needs of local communities9.

In the absence of a global accord to reduce carbon emissions, the United States and Canada should agree to a suite of shared policies to guide development of both carbon-based and low-emission sources of energy over the coming decades. Such coordination might seem unlikely given the ideological gulf between the current US and Canadian administrations, but that divide will not persist indefinitely.

A binational carbon and energy strategy should align with existing continental trade accords, provide a clear road map for decisions about energy development — particularly for unconventional oil — and enhance North American competitiveness and leadership. It should specify priorities, expectations and principles whereby decisions on infrastructure projects, such as Keystone XL or Northern Gateway, are made in the context of an overarching commitment to limit carbon emissions. North America’s energy challenges would then become a vehicle for beneficial economic coordination and integration rather than remaining a source of rancour and friction.

A key step is a moratorium on new oil-sands development and transportation projects until better policies and processes are in place. Reform is needed now: decisions made in North America will reverberate internationally, as plans for the development of similar unconventional reserves are considered worldwide.

With clearer policy, smarter decisions and stronger leadership, Canada and the United States can avoid the tyranny of incremental decisions — and the lasting economic and environmental damage that poorly conceived choices will cause.

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  1. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. 2014 CAPP Crude Oil Forecast, Markets, & Transportation: Refinery Data (CAPP, 2014).

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  2. Rooney, R. C., Bayley, S. E. & Schindler, D. W. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 49334937 (2012).

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  3. Kurek, J. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 17611766 (2013).

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  4. Kelly, E. N. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 2234622351 (2009).

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  5. Chen, Y. Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta 1995–2006 (Alberta Cancer Board, 2009).

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  6. Environment Canada. Canada’s Emission Trends (2013).

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  7. Office of the Auditor General of Canada. 2012 Spring Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Ch. 2 (2012).

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  8. Arvai, J., Gregory, R., Bessette, D. & Campbell-Arvai, V. Iss. Sci. Technol. 28, 4352 (2012).

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  9. Kenney, L., Bessette, D. & Arvai, J. J. Environ. Plan. Mgmt http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2014.899205 (2014).


Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu Calls Tar Sands “Filth”

Repost from Oil Change International

Desmond Tutu Calls Tar Sands “Filth”

Andy Rowell, June 2, 2014  


Over the last couple of years the Canadians have become accustomed to growing international criticism of their reckless and belligerent exploitation of the tar sands. They have aggressively just carried on drilling, nonetheless.

But when one of the iconic human rights activists in the world, South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Desmond Tutu, calls the tar sands “filth” and a result of “negligence and greed”, it will be much more difficult for the Canadians to ignore.

“The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed,” Tutu told an audience of about 200 at a conference in Fort McMurray over the weekend.

During the conference, which was held to highlight First Nation treaty rights, Tutu added that the tar sands were “emblematic of an era of high carbon and high-risk fuels that must end if we are committed to a safer climate.”

He also added that tar sands “development not only devastates our shared climate, it is also stripping away the rights of First Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned.”

Following the speech, the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner went on helicopter tour over the tar sands.

This is not Tutu’s first foray into the politics of the tar sands. He had previously signed a letter by 11 Nobel Prize Laureates urging U.S. President Barack Obama to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Over the weekend Tutu likened “the struggle of citizens against the pipelines” as being on “the front lines of the most important struggles in North America today.”

Tutu listed a number of campaign ideas which would have delighted anti-fossil fuel campaigners: boycotts of events sponsored by the fossil fuel industry; health warnings on oil company adverts and divestment of fossil fuel industry investments held by universities and local  municipalities.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, whose elder, Chief Allan Adam said that Tutu’s words had brought “a credible stance” to the position that First Nations needed to be a full consulted partner in all future decisions about both the current and upcoming tar sands projects which are located in their traditional territory.

Eriel Deranger, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s director, opened the second day of the conference. “We will not tolerate threat to our rights, lands, water and to us all and all future generations,” she said.

“Internalized oppression is perpetuating the cycle of oppression, ” she added. “If we don’t break that cycle, break the process of colonization and understand our strength as original inhabitants and original governments of this country, we’ll never make it.  We have to teach our communities.”

She finished by saying: “We have to break the cycle.  Truth and reconciliation is such an important thing.  We have to come back to a deep understanding of our rights and the powers we hold as Indigenous people.”

Not surprisingly, Tutu’s words have created a backlash in Canada. One commentator called him a “hypocrite, and a symbolist, for whom imagery and headlines matter more than facts and truth.”

But when the Canadians have to stoop so low as to attack someone with the international respect of Desmond Tutu, you know that they are extremely worried.

Neil Young: “We need to end the fossil fuel age”

Repost from Democracy Now!
[Editor: Our struggle here in Benicia, California is in many ways a “NOT IN MY BACKYARD” fight.  But our work is incredibly important to those whose backyards, front doors, ranches and open spaces are located uprail from here.  We are called upon to STOP crude by rail on behalf of those  who live near the tar-sands mining operations in Canada and the fracked shale fields in North Dakota and Montana.  Listen as Neil Young speaks from the heart.  – RS]

“We Need to End the Fossil Fuel Age”: Music Legend Neil Young Protests Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

29 April 2014  |  By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!

Changes in fossil fuel transport – maps of the Pacific Northwest

Repost from The Seattle Times
[Editor: Regarding CUMULATIVE IMPACTS, we in the San Francisco Bay Area need to learn from the Pacific Northwest.  Their maps are excellent – check out this great resource.  Who among us can work on this?  It seems to me that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District should be held responsible to prepare maps like this as soon as possible.  – RS]

Fossil fuels and spill risk: A changing landscape

By Seattle Times staff  |  April 19, 2014

Washington has long been a fossil fuel depot. But changes in how and where we get our oil — and the addition of proposals to export coal — are increasing the risk of spills and major accidents. Here is how fossil fuel distribution is changing.

(The maps and charts below are formatted as a single PNG IMAGE. Click on the image for a full-size readable version.)
fossil fuels and spill risk-A changing landscape(pacificnorthwest)
The maps and charts above are formatted as a single PNG IMAGE. Click on the image for a full-size readable version.