Tar Sands Setback

The bitumen boondoogle that is the Alberta tar sands took another hit last week. A small group of environmental groups won an important victory in court, overturning an environmental assessment allowing further tar sand expansion and forcing the government to consider the massive greenhouse gas emissions from future developments.

The fight started when the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB) determined that the proposed $8 billion expansion by Imperial Oil would not likely to “result in significant adverse environmental effects”. Strange… How can you extract and burn over 4.6 billion barrels of oil from this tarry mess without “significant adverse environmental effects”?

The four environmental groups, represented in court by EcoJustice Canada took the government to court and argued the obvious - that that if this project was approved it would result in massive releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, something ignored in all previous such environmental assessments. How massive? This extraction of oil alone would produce as much carbon as putting an additional 800,000 vehicles on the road for the next 50 years.

Both Imperial Oil and the Canadian government argued (with a straight face) that these additional emissions don’t really matter because industry is becoming more efficient at extracting oil from tar. This doublespeak around “intensity targets” didn’t cut any ice with the judge. Madame Justice Daniele Tremblay-Lamer said:

“The absolute amount of greenhouse gas pollution from oil sands development will continue to rise under intensity-based targets because of the planned increase in total production of bitumen. The Panel dismissed as insignificant the greenhouse gas emissions without any rationale as to why the intensity-based mitigation would be effective to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 800,000 passenger vehicles, to a level of insignificance”

You can bet the Big Oil didn’t expect to lose this one. They have long enjoyed using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon. They also threw their best and most expensive lawyers at this ballsy challenge to that entitlement, yet were clobbered by a bright young attorney who is so underpaid, he used to be my roommate.

The implications from this decision may be dire for the oil industry. The rubber stamp approvals of tar sands expansion have relied on the legal fiction that governments could simply ignore the implications of spewing carbon into the atmosphere that hasn’t seen the light of day in 160 million years. Carbon emissions and oil sands development are inseparable, and we are talking about a lot of both.

The tar sands are fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada. So energy intensive are these low-grade deposits that 700 million cubic of relatively clean natural gas are burnt each day just to extract tar from rock. This is enough to heat more than 3.7 million Canadian homes.

There is also the simple fact that the only reason that you extract oil in the first place is to burn it.

The math that flows from this is alarming. Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude add up to about 640 kg carbon dioxide per barrel. The expansion of the tar sands proposed by Imperial Oil would eventually dump almost three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ignoring carbon emissions in environmental assessments has been a lazy convenience enjoyed by Canada’s regulators for far too long. The important legal victory last week is a big step in the right direction.

This piece ran nowhere.

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