100 scientists are wrong about the Alberta oil sands

oil sands
Oil sand. Photo: Suncor Energy.

Coal, not Alberta oil sands, should be focus of scientists’ campaign

This is my column from June 11, 2015. My thinking has evolved quite a bit because of my work on the Energy Transition, but one thing hasn’t changed: Climate policies should concentrate on the low-hanging fruit, like coal for power generation (where natural gas + wind + solar is the new business model) and the energy efficiency of building (where the technology is robust and offers a significant payback for owners). Why target oil when there is not a technology to replace internal combustion engine automobiles? The letter referred to in the column is a classic case of scientists getting their priorities screwed up. Canadian policy makers

With all respect to the 100 scientists who released a letter Wednesday calling for a moratorium on new Alberta oil sands development, they are wrong.

oil sands
Mark Jaccard, energy economist, Simon Fraser University, one of the 100 scientists.

And they’re wrong even if we concede all of their arguments about the negative effects of climate change and that human activity is causing those changes.

Why? Because they’re aiming at the wrong target. And if the global economy is going to decarbonize by 2100, as the G7 countries announced a few days ago, then it’s really important to get the strategy right.

The right target is coal. A 2013 Greenpeace report identified coal as far and away the greatest threat to the global climate. The projections suggest that by 2020 the oil sands could be emitting 420 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from both production and consumption. Canada’s numbers are paltry compared to China and Australia, which will create 1,400 million tonnes and 720 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gases per year by 2020.

China produces and consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The World Coal Association pegged China’s 2013 production at 3.5 billion tonnes of coal.

The United States alone produces 1 billion short tons of coal annually.

And let’s not forget India, which produces over 600 million tonnes of coal a year and is rapidly building coal-fired power plants while the rest of the world grapples with how to shut down existing facilities.

oil sands
David Schindler, ecologist, University of Alberta, and one of the 100 scientists.

By comparison, Canada produces only 67 million tonnes of coal a year and 31 million tonnes of that amount is used for steel-making, not power generation.

And consider the fact that 65 per cent of Canadian power is generated by hydro, considered a renewable energy, and that percentage rises to 80 if we include low-carbon power-generation.

Now let’s talk about climate change strategy.

Most coal is used for generating electricity and can be replaced by a combination of natural gas, wind, solar, biomass. Most petroleum (about 75 per cent) is used for transportation, but the technology to electrify vehicles is still in its infancy.

So, the 100 scientists have to answer this question: Why target the Alberta oil sands when there is still no substitute for its product, but not target coal, far and away the greatest climate villain and for which there is an economical and environmentally-friendly alternative?

Humans still need cars to drive the kids to soccer games and trucks to haul our products to market.

Despite all the attention lavished on media darling Tesla Motors and its brilliant CEO Elon Musk, electric cars still cost too much and their range is too short. EVs account for only three per cent of California’s light duty vehicle market and the most aggressive scenario only calls for 1.2 million EV sales a year in the US by 2024. Commercial and long-haul trucking electrification is only now in the innovator stage and it will be many years before EVs are economic in this sector.

Electric vehicles are just not ready for primetime.The key obstacle to greater adoption is the low energy density of batteries. A great deal of research and development is being poured into solving the great battery dilemma, but there is no economic solution on the horizon. Until there is, EVs will be stuck in the Innovators – or at best Early Adopters – phase of the technology adoption process.

The 100 scientists’ letter addressed 10 specific issues, from the oil sands incompatibility with climate protection to land reclamation to aboriginal peoples treaty rights to contamination of the landscape. There are valid arguments to be made against each of those 10 points. And, it should be noted, in favour of each point, too. Development of the oil sands is a complex issue and there are no simple answers.

The scientists are wrong to target the Alberta oil sands, it’s coal that  should be their target.

The US EIA estimates that even with the Environmental Agency’s aggressive Clean Power Plan in place, coal will still be used to generate 26 per cent of America’s electricity by 2040, but natural gas will account for 29 per cent and renewables for 27 per cent. If that’s the best the United States can do, imagine how long China, India, Australia, Indonesia and other heavy coal consumers will cling to the Demon Hydrocarbon.

Strategy, not science, is the issue here, and the global strategy should be eliminate coal first, then petroleum as EV technology becomes viable.

Doing it wrong could impose steep costs and economic penalties that actually impede our ability to do it right.

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