The oil sands can’t be sustainable

Disturbingly often, Canadian politicians describe how they intend to develop the oil sands “sustainably”.

Whenever they do this, they demonstrate that they don’t especially care if they are expressing themselves in a sensible way or describing a cogent idea. It’s just a rhetorical way to try and respond to the concerns of environmentalists without actually questioning the logic of developing fossil fuels.

Climate scientist Gavin A. Schmidt expressed the fundamental issue very clearly:

“If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.”

The long-term processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere take much longer than a single human lifetime to operate. That means that a big chunk of the CO2 generated when we burn fuels from the oil sands sticks around in the atmosphere for a longer span of time than most politicians ever even consider. There is already a dangerous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, so no activity that adds more can be said to be ‘sustainable’. We need to be using the world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure as a way to build a post-fossil-fuel world, rather than simply persisting in the heedless production of hydrocarbons.

British journalist George Monbiot expresses this well in his criticism of Ed Davey’s proposed energy bill:

“Davey’s “transitional” technologies, gas and coal (which are transitional in the sense that chocolate fudge cake is a transition to a low calorie diet), will knacker his supposed long-term goals many years before the “short term” comes to an end.”

Asking how the oil sands can be developed ‘sustainably’ is like a person who is already overwhelmed with debt asking how many more credit-card-funded shopping sprees will be ‘sustainable’. Fossil fuel use is the problem we need to overcome, not a pathway to overcoming it. So, when politicians talk about sustainable oil sands development, they are talking nonsense.

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