Moving the earth for oil

By Bryan Walker 11/01/2011

Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.

But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:

’It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy. The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.’

He added in a subsequent interview that the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum ’is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don’t go to fund terrorism.’

So the oil is ethical because Canada is a democracy. He doesn’t actually name the countries which produce less than ethical oil, but his characterisation presumably draws on a recent book Ethical Oil by Canadian author Ezra Levant which instances Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Sudan as much less desirable sources.

As the Globe and Mail sees it, Kent’s pitch is ’an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada’s oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage’.

Kent complains that the product has been demonised, but in its support falls back on the sort of argument we’ve heard a lot of in New Zealand. He calls it ’relevant measurements’.

’Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators.’

Citing the tentative economic recovery, Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.

’Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery. It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly.’

The Canadian government does have some intentions for emissions reductions — 17 percent down from 2005 levels by 2020. But the rules when they come will be drawn up ’with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation’.

It is clear that the Canadian Government has not faced up to the fact that we can’t both successfully tackle the threat of climate change and also pursue fossil fuels to depletion. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and no amount of bluster about developing natural resources or economic recovery or maintaining competitiveness can alter it.

It’s a fact which many Governments must face, not only Canada’s. Indeed while reading the Globe and Mail report I was struck by the similarities to the position of the New Zealand government. Our Minister of Energy and Economic Development is defending the exploitation of what he describes as our natural resources with equal robustness. He paints a rosy economic future from deep sea oil drilling and lignite coal development. It will, of course, be undertaken with due regard for the environment. In fact, he went so far as to say in his opening address to the NZ Petroleum Conference last September that the development is needed to enable us to care for our environment.

’I would strongly argue that it is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment. A strong economy allows the government to spend money on biodiversity, on improving water quality, on insulating our houses, on protecting our endangered species and preserving our heritage. All those things cost money. None of them are free. A strong economy allows expenditure on them…

’So rather than stop ourselves from using our natural wealth, this government has made it clear we want to develop our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.’

The doublethink is staggering.  The only honest way of putting what both Ministers are saying is that anything we do towards emissions reduction will be token at best, because we are dead set on developing our fossil fuel resources. Why don’t they just put it baldly so that we all know where our Governments stand?  Why the weasel words about environmental protection?  Why talk of reducing emissions when they plan fuelling their increase on a large scale?

We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be.

No doubt I’ll be accused of being simplistic in pressing such questions when the issue is one of great complexity. Well, there may be complexities to be worked through, but the underlying picture is starkly simple. We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be. It was a group of Canadian scientists who have just published a widely reported paper in Nature Geoscience which predicts climate change resulting from even the present level of CO2 will be persisting for centuries. I wonder what Canadian Ministers make of that.

Another newly published Canadian paper was reported on TV3 news last night because of the major shrinkage it predicted in New Zealand glaciers during this century. I wonder if that registered with New Zealand Ministers. All the wealth of the South Island lignite fields or of oil discovered in deep sea drilling won’t suffice to put the ice back in the glaciers.