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Report by Andrew Weaver on Coal vs Oil Sands a Must Read for Climate Campaigners

Alberta has choice for replacing its aging coal assets

Feb 27, 2012

by Duncan Kinney

If you haven’t read Andrew Weaver’s report on the greenhouse gas effects of coal versus the oil sands you really should get on it. It was published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday but for a far more digestible (and unpaywalled version) I recommend reading Weaver’s piece in the Huffington Post.

Provocatively titled My New Study: Coal is 1500 Times Worse for the Environment than Oil Sands Weaver asks the question, how much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuels. His conclusions.

  1. tar sands under active development would add 0.01°C to world temperatures.
  2. economically viable tar sands reserve would add 0.03°C to world temperatures.
  3. entire tar sands oil in place, which includes the uneconomical and the economical resource, would add 0.36°C to world temperatures
  4. total unconventional natural gas resource base would add 2.86°C to world temperatures
  5. total coal resource base would add 14.8°C to world temperatures

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of chatting to me about climate change policy or even if you were just vaguely cognizant of the numbers this comes as no surprise. (If you want to dig into the raw GHG numbers the feds keep a convenient database.)

The feds know this too and have been making noises for the past 18 months on phasing out traditional coal plants. They have committed to following through on draft regulations that have sat fallow since a consultation period late last year.

It’s easy to understand why. Coal fired plants are, in the parlance of our times, low hanging fruit. They’re centralized, they don’t vote and other energy sources (like natural gas and renewables) can be brought online (relatively) quickly.

The bureaucrats at Environment Canada think coal is an easy target as well, as recent briefing notes have shown.

It’s always struck me as a quixotic quest by environmental campaigners to focus on the oil sands as opposed to aging coal plants. Coal plants pump out far more greenhouse gas emissions and heavy metals than your garden variety oil sands project. Also, shutting down aging coal plants is a potentially winnable exercise. The feds are onboard, the numbers are impossible to argue with and structurally you have fewer problems to overcome.

Fortunately George Hoberg, a professor at UBC, wrote a post which breaks down, quite adroitly, why climate campaigners have focused on things like the oil sands and Keystone XL. Titled the Three Logics of Climate Politics it explains why climate change advocates don’t necessarily focus on the highest emitter and have been caught up using language like “climate bomb” to describe the oil sands.

It came down to the political climate in the U.S. With failures in Copenhagen and Congress the climate campaigners turned to action at a more grassroots level. An otherwise boring piece of oil infrastructure, Keystone XL, was, as Hoberg says, a perfect short-term piece vehicle to concentrate tremendous pressure on.

It’s easy to be paralyzed by the numbers but there is real economic opportunity here. Alberta has immense reserves of both natural gas and renewable energy. If the province replaced its aging coal fleet, new and existing companies could flourish, all while producing less green house gas emissions.




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