David Suzuki: Tar sands are a symptom of a bigger problem

It was inevitable that climate change deniers and some oil industry promoters would misinterpret a study by scientist Andrew Weaver before reading beyond the headlines. A letter in the Calgary Herald actually claimed that “Weaver's revelation … raises even more skepticism about the entire science behind global warming.”

The writer went on to argue that the report by University of Victoria climate scientist Weaver and PhD student Neil Swart is an “awakening for David Suzuki and his environmental followers.”

It’s typical of the nonsense people who understand science have to put up with every day. The study, published in Nature, says the opposite.

Weaver and Swart set out to answer a simple question: “How much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuel resources?” Their conclusion that burning all the coal or all the gas from the entire world’s resource bases would raise global average temperatures more than burning all the Alberta tar sands reserves is hardly a surprise.

What is surprising is their finding that emissions from burning all the economically viable oil from the tar sands would only contribute to a 0.03°C rise in world temperatures, and burning the entire tar sands oil in place would add 0.36° C. That may not seem like much, but we need to put it in context.

First, the study looked only at the emissions from burning the fuels and not from extracting, refining, or transporting them. The report’s authors explain that these additional emissions “would come from the other resource pools and shouldn't be double-counted.”

If we are to avoid a 2° C increase in global temperatures, each person in the world would be allocated 80 tonnes of emissions over the next 50 years. The emissions from burning all the tar sands oil that is now economically viable (the reserves) would represent 64 tonnes of carbon for each of the 340 million people in the U.S. and Canada—about 75 pe cent of the U.S. and Canada’s global per capita allocation. If we include emissions from the extraction process, it rises to 90 per cent or more.

The study doesn’t consider any other environmental consequences of the tar sands either, from water use and pollution to destruction of boreal habitat. In fact, a recently uncovered memo prepared for the federal government claims that damage from the tar sands may be irreversible and could pose a “significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta.” The memo focused on rising emissions and damage from tailings ponds, among other effects. It concluded that “the cumulative impacts of oilsands development are not adequately understood.”

Our rush to get at the bitumen is also threatening wildlife and habitat. Conservation officers killed 145 black bears that got too close to the operations last year. And rather than protecting caribou habitat from destruction as extraction increases, the federal government has decided to kill wolves that prey on caribou instead.

On the political front, the European Union recently failed to pass its Fuel Quality Directive, which would have labeled tar sands oil as carbon intensive and undesirable for import, but that fight isn’t over.

As I’ve said before, we’re not going to stop using oil overnight, so we will continue to use tar sands products, at least in the short to medium term. But the best ways to limit environmental impacts are to slow down and to ensure the highest environmental standards are met and that we are getting maximum value for the oil to which all Canadians have a right.

As Weaver and Swart conclude: “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.”

That doesn’t mean putting pipelines through pristine wilderness, extracting bitumen as quickly as possible, and shipping it off to China in supertankers. It does mean we have to find ways to stop using coal and gas as well as oil. As Weaver points out, “The tar sands are a symptom of a bigger problem. The bigger problem is our societal dependence on fossil fuels.”

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Comments (25) Add New Comment
bdubblut
luckily (but sadly, not soon enough) climate change deniers will end up being the very same goop we burn as fossil fuels now. only i doubt there will be more than a wading pools worth.
(my apologies to Mr Suzuki for taking away from his usual brilliant logic to point at the dinosaurs)
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paul ravenshead
As usual Suzuki spews his anti everything stance and offers nothing for solutions. Suzuki nad his followers want us all to revert to the darkages where we fought for survival.
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miguel
The electricity for the Tar Sands processing is gas generated. The gas is now being acquired by fracking the old fields in the Peace River region. Two major river systems are being destroyed to get that tar.
Miguel
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smithsmith
Actually Paul if you spend some time reading some of Suzuki's books you will see that he offers plenty of solutions. The problem with someone like you is that you are so filled with fear, because anything suzuki says is an attack on your identity, that you can't and won't bother. Ignorance may be bliss for some but it kind of makes you look like an a$$.

Good for you Mr. Suzuki, keep talking the talking. People are slowly changing and its due mostly to the consistent efforts of people like you.
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R Wray
People being what we are, you'll have your chance to fight for survival sooner than you think.
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Judy Cross
Dear David and the Warmists poisoned the well with the nonsense about CO2 they've been pushing for the last 20 years.

I don't want oil tankers on the coast, but having a false friend like Suzuki on your side may in the long run be detrimental to the cause.
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MItch E. Lada
You can tell the anti-science industry dupes are getting desperate when denier for hire "Judy Cross" starts lurking all over the interwebs.
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edoherty
The question of solutions is valid in this case, since Suzuki does not mention what the tar sands oil is used for. News flash - it is largely what fuels our cars, trucks and planes in BC. It is crucial that we quickly get off tar sands oil, and that means transforming our transportation system as proposed in the Wilderness Committee / CCPA report Transportation Transformation http://ecoplanning.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/CCPA-BC_Transportation.pdf

It is time that Suzuki and other environmental groups caught up to the Wilderness Committee in focusing on both the production and consumption ends of the tar sands pipelines.
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Judy Cross
When you won't debate the issues, attempt smearing the messenger. At least I'm a real person, unfortunately unfunded by anybody. I just read a great deal and after 74+ years on Earth, I know when I'm being played.
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Ian_Hanington
WIth all respect, edoherty, the David Suzuki Foundation and others have done a great deal of work on what the oil is used for, and around solutions, including those that involve transportation. It's bad enough that right wingers and climate change deniers are stepping up attacks on people in the environmental movement; creating division among those who should be working together just plays into their hands. The WIlderness Committee is doing great work, as is DSF, Pembina, Sierra, Greenpeace, and others. You needn't take uninformed cheap shots at your allies to support your own personal favourites.

Ian Hanington
David Suzuki Foundation
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Engineer
David Suzuki rants are typical of the nonsense people who understand science have to put up with every day.
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Rational
Bahahaha! @Engineer, you stole the words right off my fingertips.
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Save Vancouver
I must have missed the part in the article where Suzuki forswears jetting around the world, in order to personally combat the burning of fossil fuels.
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Steve_W
Engineer, Rational,
The Georgia Straight is an entertainment magazine, not a science journal. Suzuki can say anything he wants, because it is "info-tainment".
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Judy Floss
Once again, the climate change deniers have misrepresented a study in a pathetic attempt to promote their anti-science beliefs. Here, the author of that study shows them for the fools they are.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/why-global-warming-...

Deniers: Please ignore. It' science (something you have a hard time with). All others who are interested in truth rather than oily PR, read on.
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@engineer
Try asking David how much global carbon emissions would drop if oil sands production stopped: zero. Others would pick up offshore and Arctic drilling to ramp up production and we'd have more people out of work in Canada. Goooood job, David.
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Goldorak
Bdullutt writes: "luckily (but sadly, not soon enough) climate change deniers will end up being the very same goop we burn as fossil fuels now"

LOL what's next? A green star on their lapel? A camp somewhere with a good furnace? You guys are inciting to racial and political violence with total impunity. Human Rights Commissions on the way to remind you what democracy is all about!
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Martin Dunphy
Goldorak:

There is no "racial violence" in the post you reference. There is not even any "political violence" in the post. And your none too subtle allusion to the Holocaust is disturbing, to say the very least.

It's called satire. The poster was comparing climate-change deniers to dinosaurs. And dinosaurs--as well as the organic material that existed on the planet with them 65 million to several hundred million years ago--eventually changed into the fossil fuel, or "goop", we call oil and "burn" today.
Got it?
LOL to you too.
Have a nice day.
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Mr. Rational
@engineer: Did you not read the article before posting, or do you just have some reading comprehension difficulties?

"As I’ve said before, we’re not going to stop using oil overnight, so we will continue to use tar sands products, at least in the short to medium term. But the best ways to limit environmental impacts are to slow down and to ensure the highest environmental standards are met and that we are getting maximum value for the oil to which all Canadians have a right."
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john poirier
It's so obvious, the freaken oil lovers are getting desperate.
Mr Suzuki is good man, and the science he refers to is real science, peer reviewed, and not funded by some fossil fuel industry. propaganda 101, discredit apposing research by any means necessary. Keep up the good work David and thank you for looking out for our best interests.
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