Thursday, April 25, 2013

Who is right about the oil sands: James Hansen, Joe Oliver or none of the above?

Years ago, when I was on the editorial board at the Silhouette, McMaster University's campus weekly, we received lots of letters to editor expressing outrage about some university decision. The vitriolic letters would invariably start with the phrase "I am appalled by", a phrase that was often bandied by the overtired editors trying to put the paper "to bed" at 5 or 6 am.

There was no shortage of outrage yesterday when Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver called out well-known climate scientist Jim Hansen during a speech in Washington. Oliver argued Hansen is "exaggerating" when he says exploiting the oil sands (thanks Brad) would be "game over" for the climate. Oliver laid out his argument in full later in the day during this follow-up interview on CBC's Power and Politics:

Should we be appalled by the Minister's statement?

This very issue was subject of a recent post, some of which is paraphrased here. In defending Keystone XL and the oil sands, Oliver quotes a much-discussed article published Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver that found the total amount of carbon stored in the oil sands is "only" sufficient to raise the world's temperature by 0.24-0.50°C.

In that sense, what Oliver is saying is true, in that it does reflect the results of the Swart and Weaver analysis. Given that full extraction of the oil sands would take many many years, and that new pipelines like Keystone XL itself would only allow a fraction of the oil sands to be extracted, it would appear to be correct that any claim that expansion of the oil sands or building Keystone XL is directly "game over" for the climate is an exaggeration.

However, if you consider the oil sands as part of a particular energy future, Hansen's claim, though a bit hyperbolic for my tastes, does have legitimacy. (note: Hansen did not specifically say, in the original article, that the oil sands alone were "game over", but his comments since more or less support that assertion)

The figure below shows that according to International Energy Agency (IEA) modeling, if all of the oil sands projects with regulatory approval go ahead, oil sands production will exceed the level expected to occur in a +2°C world. If the projects under regulatory review all go ahead, oil sands production will be higher than that in the IEA's +6°C scenario.

The first column is existing, planned and announced oil sands projects;
 the orange bars are oil sands production in the IEA future scenarios.
Production is assumed to be 80% of capacity, following the IEA methods. 
As Minister Oliver notes, the oil sands are only one source of oil, and only one source of fossil carbon. That carbon will not be exploited in a vacuum. In analysing this problem, you need to consider what role the oil sands are likely to play in the global oil and global energy system. A world in which the oil sands are fully exploited is a world in which many other sources of oil and carbon are also exploited.

Regardless of whether the carbon in the oil sands should be directly considered "game over", the IEA Outlook suggests a world with greater oil sands extraction is, in essence, a "game over" in Hansen's mind, because it would guarantee dangerous impacts from climate change (e.g. eventual loss of the major ice sheets). If we want to avoid Hansen's "game over", we probably need a global energy system in which the expansion of extraction in the oil sands is constrained. Since the proposed pipelines like Keystone XL would allow for construction of the extraction projects with regulatory approval or under regulatory review, blocking the pipelines might be the best indirect way of leaving most of that carbon in the ground.

In the end, round one of Oliver v. Hansen says more about overly cartoon-ish discussion about climate change, than it does about the climate science and the oil sands. Oliver's argument has some merit. So does Hansen's. Rather than deal with the grey, we force all this into black and white. Outspoken scientists are messiahs. Conservative politicians are oil-soaked, climate deniers. It makes for great video and easy outrage on twitter. It does not advance the conversation or lead to any solutions.

Communications and the media have come a long way since those long nights at the Sil, where we laid the paper out by hand on big boards, carefully pasted single words into articles to correct mistakes, and used RP tape (black lines) to create edges on the photos.

Letters begat emails. Emails begat blog posts. Blog posts begat tweets. People are still appalled, but now in 140 character bursts.


david lewis said...

Pachauri spoke in 2007 just prior to the Bali meeting, and stated, emphatically, for world media consumption:

"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment".

In the terms Pachauri was talking about, nothing was done.

Kevin Anderson is now telling us that in 2007 when Pachauri warned us how bad things were, the situation was actually worse, i.e. now its later than too late. Anderson's case rests on two points. His first point: "all" reports issued by types like Stern were written by people who had rose tinted glasses on when they made ("impossible") assumptions about what civilization could do about the problem. His second point: what science has discovered about how dangerous allowing 2 degrees of warming to occur has changed anyone's reasonable assessment of the problem, i.e. it makes 1 degree the new 2.... (See Anderson's Cabot Lecture on Youtube)

So it seems the answer to your question is none of the above.

It can't be "game over" due to something that is about to occur, i.e. the approval or nonapproval of some pipeline somewhere, if its game over already.

Simon Donner said...

Thanks David.

Your assessment depends on whether 2 degrees C above pre-industrial (or 1.5 degrees C, as argued by the small island states) means "game over". Say one accepts that premise. What's next? How do you treat decisions like Keystone XL, the Kinder Morgan expansion, etc.?

Alexander Ac said...


How do you treat decisions like Keystone XL, the Kinder Morgan expansion, etc.?

Can be Game over over? :-[