Author Archives: BuryCoal

Why ‘ethical oil’ may be an own goal

Don’t tell him, but I think Ezra Levant’s whole ‘ethical oil’ concept might be a psychological own goal for the people trying to promote the unrestricted growth of Canada’s oil sands.

The intent of the campaign is to draw attention to ethical abuses connected to oil from sources outside Canada. For instance, the lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia. For people who are already convinced that Canadian oil is A-OK, the contrast between the appeal of buying oil from ‘good’ Canadian companies rather than ‘bad’ foreign companies or governments seems stark.

The reason why I think the slogan may be self-defeating is that by trying to draw attention away from arguments that Canadian oil is itself unethical, it reinforces the point that the choices we make about energy are ethical choices, not mere consumer choices. If you have come to accept buying fossil fuel as a perfectly ordinary part of life, with no more thought accorded to it than to buying a pack of gum or a bus token, seeing a blaring campaign about how Canada’s oil is ethical while oil from elsewhere is not may bring to mind the very arguments that the campaign is seeking to discredit.

Plenty of people are aware of how problematic our society’s dependence on oil is. They are also aware of the dubious business dealings and environmental damage associated with all oil companies, including those in Canada’s oil sands. Oil companies are bad neighbours. When operating normally, they produce air and water pollution that saturates the world with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals. When something goes wrong, they cause catastrophic accidents that end human lives and spoil large areas of nature. Their operations and product are also inescapably linked with climate change. They profit while the people downstream and downwind suffer.

Reminding people that oil is an ethical issue may end up encouraging those with a balanced view to make less use of it and search more energetically for alternatives. To put it briefly, the oil industry loses when oil gets discussed as an ethical matter; for them, it is much better when people see oil amorally as an essential enabler for things they value doing like driving cars and flying in airplanes.

One side note about ‘ethical oil’ – one of their standard photo ops is to get a couple of women to wear black body-covering garments in the style of a burqa in front of environmental protests. The people being photographed often have a sign suggesting that OPEC is pleased by environmental protests, since they restrict hydrocarbon development in North America and keep the continent dependent on imports. On one level, these protests seem like fair comment on the oppressive government policies in some major oil-producing states. At the same time, it seems possible that the intention behind the protest is to take advantage of xenophobic or anti-Muslim sentiment. Appealing to the moral sentiment that women should not be subjugated by their governments is one thing, but using Islamophobia to try to discredit your opponents is much less morally upright.

Peak oil is unlikely to solve the climate crisis

An interesting report released by Leonardo Maugeri (PDF) at Harvard’s Belfer Center argues that the world still has huge amounts of unconventional oil and that recent concerns about ‘peak oil’ are ill-founded:

“My field-by-field analysis suggests that worldwide, an additional unrestricted supply of slightly less than 50 mbd is under development or will be developed by 2020. Eleven countries show a potential outflow of new production of about 40.5 mbd, or about 80 percent of the total. After adjusting the world’s additional unrestricted production for taking into account risk-factors, the additional adjusted supply comes to 28.6 mbd , or 22.5 mbd for the first eleven countries – as shown in Figure 3 (more extensive data are shown in Table 3, Section 4).

These numbers carry at least two important messages:

* They represent the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s.

* They point to a tectonic shift in the oil geography and geopolitics, by making the Western Hemisphere the fastest growing oil-producing region in the world, with the United States and Canada combined outpacing any other country.

This suggests that the hopes of some environmentalists that there might not be enough oil available to cause catastrophic or runaway climate change may not be realized. Of course, even if oil were scarce, there is a lot of planet-altering gas and coal left in the world.

Maugeri concludes that in the medium term, substantially more oil production is possible:

“In any case, the single most important issue that emerges from my analysis is that, from a purely physical and technical point of view, oil supply and capacity are not in any danger. On the contrary, they could significantly exceed world consumption needs and even lead to a phase of oil overproduction if oil demand does not exceed a compounded rate of growth of 1.6 percent each year to 2020.”

He identifies Iraq, the United States, and Canada as the countries most capable of increasing their oil output during that timespan.

Maugeri also highlights the long investment lag-times and asymmetries that exist in the fossil fuel sector:

“The industry tends to increase investment gradually as the price of crude oil increases, but once the new investments are started, they are very difficult to stop, even when consumption and crude oil prices suddenly collapse. In other words, the industry behaves like an elephant running: it starts very slowly, but once it gets going, no one can stop it.

In fact, as an oil company gradually spends its budget, the investment assumes a life of its own, and it becomes unprofitable to block the spending, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent. The need to obtain an economic return on capital already invested takes priority over almost any other consideration, unless there are dramatic changes in the market situation.

To complicate matters, contractual commitments are made by the oil companies with the countries owning the deposits, which often make it difficult to block or reduce the spending. Indeed, these commitments demand heavy economic penalties or even revocation of the concessions granted by the host government if, by pre-established dates, the agreed number of wells and the needed infrastructure are not realized, and initial production is not achieved.”

Once companies make the gigantic investments necessary to access these unconventional oil reserves, it is unreasonable to think that they will be willing to stop exploiting them in the future, or that politicians will be willing to force them to accept such losses. Arguably, the only way to stop an unconventional fossil fuel bonanza that wrecks the climate is to keep it from ever starting.

George Monbiot has also written a column about Maugeri’s report.

NRTEE report on climate policy

The National Round Table on Energy and the Environment has released a new report on Canada’s climate change policy:

Reality Check: The State of Climate Progress in Canada

In their summary of the report, they explain:

Despite making progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Canada is not on track to achieve the federal government’s 2020 reduction target of 17% below 2005 levels. Canada will not achieve its 2020 GHG emission reductions target unless significant new, additional measures are taken. More will have to be done. No other conclusion is possible.

Reality Check: The State of Climate Progress in Canada was undertaken last year at the request of the federal Minister of the Environment to inform the government’s regulatory approach to reducing emissions. NRT’s research is based on original modelling using Environment Canada’s data as a principal source, as well as extensive consultations with the provinces and territories, academic and public policy experts.

The report serves as a reality check on the state of climate progress in Canada today. It reinforces some key truths about climate policy in Canada: that a national target needs a concerted national policy behind it, that policy uncertainty still exists and stifles progress, that the country has yet to implement effective policies to address some large sources of emissions, and that all this means progress has been and will remain difficult and uneven across the country.

It is worth noting that NRTEE will be eliminated if the budget implementation act (C-38) becomes law. The bill is currently under consideration by Parliament.

Government interference in the Northern Gateway pipeline review process

Both the public statements and the actions of Canada’s federal government have served to undermine the independence and integrity of the ongoing review of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Neither government ministers nor the prime minister have been shy about asserting that the pipeline is to be built regardless of the concerns of local residents and aboriginal groups and regardless of how it would put their climate change targets even further out of reach.

The implementation bill for the latest federal budget would also give cabinet the authority to overrule the National Energy Board and build the pipeline regardless of what they decide.

In the short term, these government actions may seem to improve the odds that the pipeline will be built. One significant consideration, however, is how the courts will respond to this bullying. In the event that aboriginal opposition to the pipeline is ignored by the government, it seems virtually certain that First Nations groups will go to the court to seek an order to block construction. The more the government undermines the legitimacy of the environmental assessment process, the more likely it is that judges will rule that the government has behaved improperly and the higher the odds the pipeline will be blocked by judicial means.

Mountain Justice activism in West Virginia

More civil disobedience against coal:

Five people boarded an empty coal barge at the Quincy Docks operated by Kanawha River Terminals in Chelyan, W.Va. and locked themselves to the boat with a banner stating “Coal Leaves Cancer Stays”. The barge was immobilized for three hours, until police removed them by 1:00 pm.

Those arrested were Ricki Draper, 21, of Greensboro, NC; Nathan Joseph, 23, New Orleans, LA; Rebecca Loeb, 24, Maynard, MA; Catherine-Ann MacDougal, 23, Rock Creek, WV; and Jacob Mack-Boll, 20, Lancaster, PA.

Blocking coal trains in White Rock, BC

On May 5th, NASA climatologist James Hansen and others say they will be blocking BNSF coal trains from passing through White Rock, British Columbia. They say that they will be blocking coal trains only, allowing other freight and passenger trains to pass.

Hansen has posted a letter (PDF) about this on his website, addressed to Warren Buffett, the owner of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver is also participating.

Pushing tar sands exports

Greenpeace has released a new report on how Canada’s government has been trying to support oil sands exports to the United States and Europe: Dirty Diplomacy: The Canadian Government’s Global Push to Sell the Tar Sands.

Arguably, Canada’s government should not be out there advocating for such a destructive industry. If the European Union and the United States do not want to buy the fuel from the oil sands, that is probably a good thing for the world.

Growing pollution from the oil sands

Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute does a good job of explaining one major reason why the oil sands are of special concern, when it comes to the various sources of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada:

No one could make the case about why the oilsands matter better than Environment Canada just did. In late July, the department published a document called Canada’s Emissions Trends, which provides an up-to-date projection of greenhouse gas pollution under a “business as usual” scenario — in other words, our emissions future unless governments take stronger actions than they have to date.

This document provides really important data, so we were very glad to see it made public. But the picture it paints of where oilsands emissions are heading is — to put it mildly — not pretty.

Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands have grown by over 150 per cent. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada’s number show, they’re going to keep right on growing, tripling from 30 million tonnes in 2005 to 92 million tonnes in 2020. That represents 12 per cent of Canada’s projected national emissions in 2020, more than the total for any province except Alberta and Ontario.

That makes the oilsands sector very unique. In other parts of Canada’s economy, emissions are expected to grow much more slowly, or even to drop as technologies improve or federal or provincial emission reduction policies take effect. Most notably, electricity emissions are expected to fall by 31 million tonnes in Canada by 2020 in the absence of new government policies — while oilsands expansion is forecast to increase emissions by twice that much over the same period. (It’s worth noting that the federal government has already outlined a regulatory approach to coal-fired electricity detailed enough that it’s been included in Environment Canada’s “business as usual” projections, while the projections don’t include an equivalent federal policy approach for the oilsands.)

While other sectors of the Canadian economy can learn how to operate in ways that damage the climate much less, output from the oil sands will always significantly raise global pollution levels.

The world as a whole needs to go on a carbon diet, and Canada along with it. Plans to have output from the oil sands keep growing without end are at odds with that necessary aim.