Over the course of the past year, Canadians have become particularly familiar with Alberta’s extensive supply of exploitable tar sands. With the third largest stash of oil reserves on the planet*, we’ve inherited a sort of power role in the global energy economy.
Although the sands themselves – euphemistically re-dubbed “oil sands” – are nothing new, excitement over what they offer economically has grown as alternative sources of energy (American and Middle Eastern sources specifically) deplete or fall otherwise out of favor. Simply put, we’re the runner-up prom queen who rises to the occasion when the original honouree is bedridden with mono. Hey, we’ll take it, the federal government says.
In the past year, headlines surrounding the exorbitant reserves have touched on the controversial decision to physically build the pipelines necessary to enable such large-scale international exporting (whether through the south-bound Keystone XL, or the westward Northern Gateway), but also on domestic issues like a potential west-to-east line to supply eastern Canada and the ever-present concern over whether or not we should be doing more of the refining work ourselves as opposed to outsourcing the responsibility to wherever the raw product ends up.
The significance of the resource, then, is not to be understated. In fact, the abundance of potentially exploitable carbon-based fuel is among the biggest things to ever happen to the Canada. Stop for a second and consider that, I’m not being hyperbolic. With that in mind, the talking point is here to stay, so apathy toward the ongoing debate is counterproductive. Take an interest.
Although tar sand opposition has been labelled ideological and even “radical” by our own federal government, the growing sentiment opposing the development of the resource is not to be ignored. Perhaps, however, it ought to be redirected.
Concerns over the looming threat of a physical spill, whether over land or in the water, are valid in their own right but to focus discussion on such mishaps is to treat the symptoms of our increasing hydrocarbon addiction as opposed to the disease itself. In other words, the risk of coastal contamination, deforestation and impacted wild life populations is but the tip of the iceberg (get it, it’s a joke about the Arctic melting… me neither).
More pressing, is the underlying problem of tar sands exploitation; what it means for the world and where we’re headed as a species. By encouraging such large-scale exploitation of a carbon-based resource, we would be one of the few, primary enablers of the current greenhouse gas-emitting status quo; we would be profiting off of the very cause of what’s jeopardizing life on this planet. Again, not hyperbole, read it twice.
Time for a science lesson. Don’t worry, it will be over quick. Although climate change is a broad topic, the build up of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is the most prevalent contributor. Greenhouse gases, which exist in Earth’s atmosphere, allow heat from the sun to enter said atmosphere, but not to exit. The result? An increase in temperature… like a greenhouse.
Although there are several greenhouse gases, the most significant for our purposes is carbon dioxide. Water vapor is the most abundant, but carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the one tied directly to the burning of carbon-based fuel (if this is new to you, read about it). Scientists measure the amount of carbon dioxide with a term called “parts per million”. Parts per million, or ppm, is a simple ratio that considers the concentration of a particular substance within another substance.
Currently the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 395 parts per million. Thirty years ago that level stood at 345 parts per million. Fifty years ago? Less than 320. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was said to be around 275 parts per million, and that’s where it’s assumed to have hovered naturally since the ice age. Picture that graph. Actually, let me show it to you. What this means is that over time, the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has built up, resulting in warmer temperatures and the devastating consequences of such warmth. Okay, science class is over.
The level that renowned NASA scientist James Hansen believes to be a sustainable, comfortable level for the environment is 350 parts per million. That means, if we plan on inhabiting a planet similar to the one we exist on currently, we have some work to do – otherwise, brace yourself for higher temperatures, altered climate patterns, increased drought, rising levels of hunger (couple with a growing global population) and civil unrest not like what we’ve seen starting with the Arab Spring. The 350 benchmark has spawned an entire movement championed by author Bill McKibben. Similar resentment, however, has yet to spill over into the mainstream Canadian consciousness, at least not as perceived by the Canadian media.
Lost in the buzz surrounding vulnerable salmon populations and the logistical nightmare it would be to effectively manage large oil tanker traffic in coastal B.C. waters is the fact that the amount of oil within the Alberta tar sands alone is enough to add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than has been added since prior to the invention of the steam engine. It’s like saying the most concerning part of being addicted to crystal meth is the impact it will have on your teeth.
Specifically, the carbon dioxide produced from the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the tar sands is enough to add 140 extra parts per million to the atmosphere. Remember, we’re trying to get from 395 ppm down to 350, not upwards of 500.
The choice that Canadians have to make, then, is whether they’re willing to take a stand against tar sand exploitation in an attempt to keep the costly carbon underground. Even if that means deviating from our assumed economic path. Are we okay being one of the sole enablers of our planet’s oil addiction if the true cost is a drastically altered planet?
From this point forward the conversation surrounding Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, or any exploitation of the tar sands whatsoever, should focus not only on the potentially devastating impacts of a spill, but the absolute impact of enabling atmospheric pollution to increase unchecked. It’s a point conveniently ignored by parties with an investment in Alberta oil.
We’re that country.
*According to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report (PDF)