The events of the last week made it abundantly clear that oil is a risky business.

On Saturday, a powerful earthquake shook Canada’s West Coast, leading to a tsunami warning. Thankfully, the damage was limited. But the quake had local residents asking whether building a massive new pipeline and supertanker port in the most earthquake-prone part of the country is such a good idea.

Enbridge, the company that wants to build a new pipeline that would pump raw tar sands bitumen across the Rockies and then load it into supertankers that would then navigate the narrow and extremely hazardous Douglas Channel, was downplaying the risk. But after their “Keystone Kop” performance in response to the Michigan tar sands spill, their credibility is weak, while their recent testimony on spill prevention and response hasn’t done anything to boost confidence in their ability to deal with earthquakes.

The oil industry (and the federal government) are willing to take this kind of a gamble in order to take to realize their dreams of quadrupling the size of the tar sands industry in northern Alberta. They are desperate to get new pipelines to a port on the West Coast because they are getting squeezed out of the U.S. market, where the demand for oil is going down thanks to new fuel efficiency standards brought in by President Obama even as domestic oil production is on the rise.

This is no small task. As illustrated in this chart from the industry consultant group CERI, it’s going to require more than one new pipeline over those earthquake-prone mountains to increase tar sands exports from about 1.5 million barrels per day to 6 million barrels per day.


In the last few days, we have also witnessed an entirely different kind of risk from the ruthless pursuit of oil and other fossil fuels, as a deadly climate change-fuelled hurricane of unprecedented size  tore a path of destruction through the Caribbean, along the East Coast of the United States and even up into Canada.

Hurricane Sandy has been dubbed the Frankenstorm because there is a growing recognition that human activity is making storms like Sandy even more powerful. Scientists are speaking out on the link between climate change and “weather on steroids.” (For details, see the NPR blog Frankenstorm: Has Climate Change Created A Monster?, as well as articles in The Guardian, the Washington Post and Scientific American).

Basically, climate science tells us that as we increase the share of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, we add more energy to the system. With more energy trapped, we get more extreme weather events.

As one example, we know that trapping heat in the atmosphere ultimately warms the oceans. Warmer water results in more powerful storms with stronger winds, more rain and higher storm surges, as even a small increase in the ocean's warmth can pump up an existing storm's power.

So when we saw the second highest global ocean temperatures on record this September, with mid-Atlantic coastal waters 1.3 degrees C above average, the ingredients were there for bigger storms. These unusually warm ocean temperatures continued into October, enabling hurricane Sandy to pull more energy from the ocean than a typical October hurricane.

Yet while scientists are talking about how our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is creating more powerful storms, politicians have gone silent (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker piece: Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change)

So what does this have to do with Canada’s tar sands? By choosing to rapidly expand the exploitation of the tar sands  – the third largest pool of oil on the planet and one that requires much more energy to extract and process than conventional oil – we are adding fuel to the fires of global warming that are strengthening these storms.

As I will be arguing later this week before an environmental assessment panel that is reviewing Shell’s proposed new tar sands mine, approving new tar sands output is irresponsible. As you can see from the graph below, Canada has already given full approval to more tar sands production than the International Energy Agency says is necessary in a world where we raise the average global temperature by 6 degrees C.

Source: Oil Sands Developers Group and the International Energy Agency

This isn’t to say that the tar sands on their own will raise global temperatures by 6 degrees C (though they can raise global temperatures by about 0.36 degrees C, or roughly half of the increase due to all of previous human history).

 But Canada, along with 113 other countries, has agreed that we must make the deep cuts in global warming-causing pollution required to keep warming below 2 degrees C.  And the tar sands are our fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions.

If we are honest about what it means to stop global warming – in  order to avoid the kind of devastation we are already seeing from storms, floods and droughts that will only become more worse as the temperature continues to rise – then we have a moral obligation to use public policy to redirect investment away from new tar sands projects and into a green energy future.

Given what we know about the risks and the costs in human suffering and ecological destruction, to do anything else would be morally bankrupt.