The illogical (not to mention deceitful) framing of Alberta oil sands development as a supposed choice between “ethical oil” and “conflict oil” continues to fall apart. In the latest fiasco playing out at Huffington Post Canada, Ben Amunwa, a prominent critic of Shell Oil’s environmental record in Nigeria and the Alberta oil sands, has shredded EthicalOil.org spokesperson Kathryn Marshall’s ridiculous assertion that he is on the “same page” regarding the ethics of oil production (h/t Holly Stick).
So far, however, controversy has centred overwhelmingly on the distracting “ethical vs conflict oil” arguments and less on the equally misleading statements on the real environmental issues in the oil sands from EthicalOil.org (a.k.a. the Ethical Oil Institute). So today I’ll take a detailed look at the Ethical Oil position on the oil sands carbon footprint, as seen in former spokesperson Alykhan Velshi’s error-filled and confused post entitled Mythbusting: Are the Oilsands Major greenhouse Gas Emitters?, part of his “Myths and Lies” series.
I’ll focus on the two most significant problems in Velshi’s piece:
- Velshi’s original premise was that not only are oil sands greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relatively insignificant, but that they are actually declining. This has been partially corrected, presumably in response to my initial commentary on this issue, but in such a way as to render his argument completely illogical. And Velshi’s conclusion still repeats the utterly mistaken assertion that oil emissions “are falling”, whereas in fact they are rising at a rapid rate.
- Ethical Oil’s credibility is further damaged by misleading statements concerning the supposedly tiny contribution of oil sands emissions when compared to total global human and natural emissions. This echoes barely veiled climate “skeptic” arguments in Ezra Levant’s 2009 book that started the whole “ethical oil” rebranding effort. And an examination of Levant’s previous statements on climate science would appear to confirm that a strong anti-science stance is not far from the surface, despite the efforts of Ethical Oil spokespersons to hide it.
Oil sands emissions: up, down and sideways
I first noted problems with Velshi’s oil sands GHG post in my original expose of the hitherto mysterious Alberta-based Ethical Oil Institute, pointing to the following passage.
So, if we want to ensure that we minimize the impact our industries have on the atmosphere, then paying close attention to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the oilsands has to be a priority. And it is: According to Environment Canada’s measurements, the oilsands has reduced its GHG output by 29% since 1990. Despite massive expansion of oilsands production in the last two decades, Canada’s oil companies have managed to cut their carbon output by nearly a third.
I pointed out the obvious error: that the Environment Canada figure referred to GHG intensity, that is emissions per barrel, not overall emissions. Some time after that, a surreptitious correction made its appearance. But the corrected version makes even less sense.
According to Environment Canada’s measurements, the oilsands has reduced its per barrel GHG output by 29% since 1990. Despite massive expansion of oilsands production in the last two decades, Canada’s oil companies have managed to cut their per barrel carbon output by nearly a third. [Bold emphasis added].
Falling overall emissions accompanying “massive expansion of oilsands production” would have been most impressive, had that fairy tale been true. But one would expect at least some “per barrel carbon output” reduction with such expansion, simply from economies of scale and normal early improvements, if nothing else. To laud this per barrel reduction “despite” massive expansion renders the last sentence nonsensical (not to mention utterly hilarious).
Now I can’t be sure that the half-hearted correction was inspired by my critique. On the other hand, only the specific instance I pointed out was changed, while the misbegotten premise of falling (or else constant) greenhouse gas emissions remained woven throughout the rest of the piece. That includes Velshi’s rousing conclusion, based on that same original erroneous assertion.
Canada’s oilsands are responsible for a fraction of the country’s GHG emissions; the entire Canadian economy is responsible for a fraction of the world’s GHG emissions; and while emissions from the oilsands fall, there are many energy sources presenting far more serious climate challenges than the oilsands do, and those other challenges, unfortunately, are only getting worse. [Emphasis added]
And it gets better. After the mangled passage now describing falling per barrel GHG emissions, Velshi claimed:
As impressive as that is, Canadians want oilsands producers to do even better, and at this rate, there’s no reason to expect that they can’t.
Remember that the original context of this statement was a supposed (but non-existent) decline in total GHG emissions from the oil sands. However, even if we interpret this statement in the context of per barrel emissions, any improvements will be modest at best for the foreseeable future. In fact, average per barrel emissions have stalled and even climbed a little over the last five years, according to Government of Canada figures (as noted in the recent must-read Pembina Institute briefing note Oil Sands and Climate Change in Figure 3 on p.6). [Update: See chart below]
Moreover, more GHG-intensive “in situ” projects will continue to have a rising share of production, so there is little reason to expect any overall reductions in GHG intensity over the next several years. (The one innovation would be slight reductions from massively subsidized upgrader carbon capture and storage projects, which may or may not come online before 2020).
So GHGs will continue to rise more or less in lockstep with production. That’s why Environment Canada projects oil sands emissions to double from now to 2020 and reach about 90 Mt, a fact nowhere discussed in Velshi’s confused exposition. That’s hardly surprising: oil sands apologists, whether from government, industry or allied PR groups, generally avoid discussion of rising GHGs. Of course, that usually means not referring to the massive increase in production either, but the ever-confused Velshi appears not to have gotten that particular memo.
Velshi’s failure to acknowledge the inexorable steady rise in oil sands emissions can also be seen in these statements, which imply more or less constant emissions (which is at least a slight improvement to the supposedly falling emissions he alluded to elsewhere).
The entire oilsands industry emits, every year, 45 MT. …
[Oilsands] … are responsible for roughly 5% of all of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
… [The oil sands] account for approximately 5 per cent of Canada’s total human emissions – which works out to 0.1 per cent of the world’s human-caused emissions. Not bad for the world’s biggest source of oil. …
In absolute terms, the oil sands release about 29.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually.
Aside from Levant’s curious reference to “human” emissions (more on that in a moment) it’s interesting to note that somehow oil sands GHGs have risen from 29.5 MT to 45 MT, yet remain at 5% of Canadian emissions. Once again, the facts are rather inconvenient to Levant’s and Velshi’s case, as can be seen in the actual numbers for the last four years (including 2010 estimates from Environment Canada’s July 2010 report, Canada’s Emissions Trends).
|Year||Oil Sands CO2e MT||Canada CO2e MT||Oil Sands % MT|
It turns out Levant’s 29.5 MT figure is actually from 2005, four years before he wrote the book. But even the widely cited 5 percent figure has been superceded in two short years by the inexorable rise in oil sands GHGs. As can be seen above, last year’s oil sands emissions are estimated at 49 MT, about 7 percent of the total Canadian economy. And they are set to rise to at least 12 percent of the Canadian total by 2020, jeopardizing the Canadian Conservative government’s 17% overall reduction target relative to 2005.
Also notice Levant’s deceptive assertion that this record is “not bad for the world’s biggest source of oil”. Oil sands reserves may be very large, but at about 1.6 million barrels per day, current production is still under 2 percent of global production of about 87 million barrels per day. However, as production ramps up to access proven reserves and capture a larger share of world production, so too will the oil sands carbon footprint. And that leads directly to the essential debate that Levant and company want to avoid.
However, Ethical Oil is far from the only oil sands booster to present outdated information and gloss over the ever rising carbon footprint of the oil sands. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ page on oil sands impact on “air” still proclaims:
37.2 megatonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted from the oil sands each year.
- 15 per cent of Alberta’s total greenhouse emissions
- five percent of Canada’s emissions
37.2 MT is the old 2008 figure, which was recently revised up to 40 MT and is a full 12 MT short of estimated 2010 emissions. And at the very top, you can find this guiding principle, even though per barrel emissions reductions have stalled over the last few years, as I mentioned above.
We will continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of production by improving our energy efficiency and by developing new technologies.
Perhaps CAPP iswaiting for a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline before getting around to updating and correcting their oil sands web page.
Closet climate science “skeptics”?
Previously, I noted Levant’s passing reference to “human” emissions. Velshi also makes a distinction between “natural” and “manmade” emissions, and then lumps them together in an attempt to downplay oil sands emissions by an order of magnitude.
Since the entire Canadian economy is responsible for just 0.3% of the whole world’s natural and manmade carbon emissions, GHGs from the oilsands total just over one-hundredth of one percent of all the greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere, or 0.015%.
Now here is Levant (again from p. 112-113 of Ethical Oil) elaborating on natural and human emissions, with a few well worn contrarian talking points along the way. I’ll quote a full two paragraphs, but that’s necessary to understand Levant’s essentially anti-science contrarian stance.
While carbon dioxide may get all the attention, it isn’t really the biggest source of greenhouse gases on the planet: water vapour is. According to reporting by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, water vapour is responsible for between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the greenhouse effect. And both gases are a natural part of our ecosystem. The planet can’t survive without a great deal of carbon dioxide, and a massive amount of it is naturally occurring: more than 95 per cent of all the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from nature, including the world’s oceans, decaying plants, and the exhalation of all of the earth’s tens of billions of creatures. Then there are all the forest fires and volcanoes. Every single year, 210 billion tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere – and CO2 is just a small fraction compared to water vapour, which accounts for the majority of the greenhouse effect.
So, according to Levant, more than 95% of CO2 is natural, implying that human CO2 emissions are thus a small part of any CO2 effect. This tired contrarian meme flies in the face of established science demonstrating that pretty much all the rise in atmospheric CO2 since the dawn of the industrial age has been due to human activity. After all, annual global emissions from human activities are roughly double the observed annual rise in atmospheric CO2; it’s utterly illogical to ascribe any of this rise to natural causes.
Similarly, references to the need for carbon dioxide to sustain life and water vapour as the “most important GHG” invoke two more well-worn “skeptic” talking points.
Levant goes on, just in case there was any doubt about the intended meaning of his contrast between “natural” and “human” emissions:
Humans – who take all the blame for carbon emissions, with our cars, factories, power plants, oil sands operations, and everything else – emit a minuscule amount of that total.
And to erase any doubt about where Levant stands on anthropogenic global warming and the current consensus among climate scientists, consider this excerpt from an interview Levant gave on the Agritalk radio show in 2002. Here he repeats some of the above inanities, and adds a few more in his eagerness to promote a previous book, Fight Kyoto.
Well, the earth naturally oscillates in temperature. I mean, a thousand years ago there was period of global warming, Greenland was actually green; that was when the Vikings made their settlements there. There were vineyards in southern England. Then 600 years ago, there was the period called the “Little Ice Age” that we’re still actually emerging from. So it’s natural for the temperature of the earth to fluctuate. It’s actually not the fault of human activity because it’s happened many times in the past. You know, in my book I quote from a 1975 Newsweek article about the perils of global cooling, so I think if we were to jump every time some scientist said it was time to jump over climate change, we would be jumping quite a lot. And I think the smart thing to do is to focus on cleaning up real pollution in the world instead of running around trying to reduce our emission of harmless gasses like carbon dioxide and methane that are mostly released by natural sources. And to all of a sudden try to criminalize naturally emitted gasses like carbon dioxide is folly in the highest degree.
I’ll leave it as an exercise for readers to enumerate all the additional (and repeatedly debunked) climate “skeptic” memes invoked by Levant here. Perhaps I’ll update this piece with a complete list, with links to the appropriate SkepticalScience.com pages.
Meanwhile, Ethical Oil spokespersons should at least acknowledge that denial of the scientific link between human fossil fuel use and global warming is part and parcel of the ideas presented in Ethical Oil, the promulgation of which is the stated mission of the Ethical Oil Institute and its blog.
But instead Velshi gave this bit of insincere fluff.
So, if we want to ensure that we minimize the impact our industries have on the atmosphere, then paying close attention to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the oilsands has to be a priority.
On the available evidence, “paying close attention” to oil sands GHG emissions is very far from Levant and Velshi’s true priorities – unless it’s to downplay them through misleading arguments and out-of-date information. New spokesperson Kathryn Marshall happens to be a strong supporter of Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Party, led by former Fraser Institute researcher and declared climate “skeptic” Danielle Smith. Perhaps, then, Marshall will finally express Ethical Oil’s anti-AGW position in a forthright manner.
For all the ink spilt, both pro and con, about EthicalOil.org and its aggressive defence of the oil sands, it’s surprising that no one seems to have noticed the numerous fallacies in their position on the key debate concerning rapidly climbing GHG emissions in oil sands development. And, to my knowledge, no one has called them on their anti-science stance.
Levant, Velshi and Marshall are quick to denounce opponents of rampant oil sands developments for supposedly spreading “myths and lies”. But judging from their treatment of the key issue of the oil sands’ rising GHG footprint, it is Ethical Oil’s own credibility that should be questioned.