I have to wonder if the people hailing the new study published in the scientific journal Nature (subscription required) as providing support for the tar sands industry have actually read it. The Commentary “The Alberta oil sands and climate” by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria compares the impact on the climate of burning the oil locked up in the tar sands with other fossil fuels.

It finds – to no one’s surprise – that burning all the coal on the planet would have a bigger impact (14.79 degrees of warming) than burning the tar sands located in Alberta (0.36 degrees of warming - which is almost half of the impact of all previous emissions in human history).

But it also notes that we aren’t actually making a choice between those two options. We are currently pursuing both, even though full development of the tar sands proven reserve (i.e. the oil that can be profitably extracted with current technology at current prices, which is ~10% of the total amount of oil in the ground) would use up three quarters of the total amount of carbon emissions allowed for all of North America if we want a 66 per cent chance to keep warming below the internationally-agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius.

Weaver himself has forcefully rejected the claim that this is good news for tar sands promoters:

“We’re not giving a get-out-of-jail-free card to the tar-sands industry. This is not the purpose of our study,” Dr. Weaver said. Indeed, he is “absolutely opposed” to the Northern Gateway pipeline on social and ecological grounds, and says policies like the EU fuel directive are “probably the way of the future,” arguing that governments must look for ways to “shift consumer demand away” from hydrocarbons.

And if you get all the way to the end of the paper he and Neil Swart published, you will find that it ends with a plea to stop building new pipelines and other forms of infrastructure that allow for increased fossil fuel extraction, and invest in alternatives:

“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.”

While action is being taken on coal in Canada (Ontario is closing 5 coal-fired generating stations), this good work is being undone by the tar sands. Thanks in large part to the political power of the oil  industry, the tar sands have become the fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and the principal reason for Canada's failure to meet international climate commitments or to show leadership during international climate negotiations.

The bottom line message that Canadians and the Harper government should take from this report is that we need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, with the priority on high-carbon fuels like coal, unconventional natural gas, and tar sands.  

For more detail, see climate scientist Andrew Weaver talking about what the tar sands mean for the climate in this interview: