[EDITORIAL] Alberta’s oil sands and Al Gore’s reckless spewing

His efforts would be best applied to the dirty business going on in his own backyard.

May 15, 2013

Al Gore giving one of the keynotes at SapphireNow 2010.

It’s a blessing that we have a former vice-president of the United States visiting Canada to set us all straight on the development of oil sands resources, which he condemned for the “reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer” during an interview with the Globe and Mail.

However, Al Gore’s remarks were less than helpful as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver travelled through Europe to tackle the EU’s new Fuel Quality Directive, which labels fuel derived from oil sands crude as dirtier than conventionally refined crude. Oliver argues that is not the case, and he’ll have a challenging time getting the Europeans to change their minds, even without Gore’s provocative remarks.

Alberta’s oil sands have become a chief villain in the global climate change narrative. There is a growing hostile clamour coming from enviro-critics who are unimpressed with the notion that an energy hungry world reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels should make use of a massive resource within a stable jurisdiction. As Gore stated so elegantly to the Globe and Mail, “There’s no such thing as ethical oil. There’s only dirty oil and dirtier oil.”

Yes, we all recognize that extracting and turning the glop that comes from the oil sands into fuel is more carbon intensive than conventional means – something like 12% to 22% more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel (depending on who is measuring). And sure, mining the bitumen isn’t pretty. It makes a mess of the landscape. But reckless spewing?

We could point out that the industry’s R&D and new technology is dropping emissions levels, that energy producers are focusing on mitigating water use and they’re pledging to return the landscape to almost original condition – not that these efforts will resonate with critics, like Gore.

Yet as an environmental prophet, he actually does have relevant things to say about climate change and the need to address this global environmental threat, but like many of the critics of the “tar sands” and the opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline, his efforts would be best applied to the dirty business going on in his own backyard.

Neither the US nor Canada are particularly good examples of emissions stewardship. Both have earned Ds for their efforts in a field of 17 developed economies, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s How Canada Performs report card. But electricity generation is a major source of emissions for both countries, and based on that measure, Canada gets an A on renewable energy, compared to an American C.

Electricity accounts for the biggest portion of US emissions at 33%. Seventy per cent of its electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels. Of that, burning coal is good for 42%.

Thirteen per cent of Canada’s emissions come from generating electricity, second to transportation at 24%. Low emitting power sources (such as nuclear, wind, solar and hydro) account for 78% of the power. Of that, 64% is from hydro generation.

Both countries lag on emissions reductions. Canada is about halfway to a recalibrated commitment of 17% from 2005 levels, while the US brought its emissions down in 2011 by reducing the intensity of fuels used for electricity, notably coal, and significantly increasing the use of hydro.

Good for the US. But it bears repeating that in the climate change sweepstakes, China is responsible for 23% of emissions, the US 19%, the EU 13% and Canada 2%. Of that 2%, the oil sands accounts for 7% of Canada’s total emissions and about 0.15% of global emissions. If Canada were to shut down the oil sands tomorrow and not extract or upgrade another drop of bitumen, there would be virtually no impact on global emissions. The United States, on the other hand, is still burning plenty of fossil fuels for electricity. Coal, scrubbed or not, is hardly clean. Oliver notes emissions from US coal-fired power plants are 40 times greater than those generated by the oil sands.

So who is treating the atmosphere like an open sewer? Grandma would say that’s the pot calling the kettle black, Mr. Gore…