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Head-In-The-Tar-Sands Politics

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Message Wolfgang Brauner
You can't mitigate global climate disruption and support tar sand production at the same time.  'Clean coal' is an oxymoron, and 'Carbon capture & storage (CCS)' is a technology which does not yet exist, and is unlikely to make a significant difference any time soon, if ever.  Apparently, this does not prevent the Obama administration from promoting both of them.

So far, Obama's rhetoric on Canada's tar sands is as empty as BP's 'Beyond Petroleum' ad campaign, on which it spent millions of dollars while investing $3 billion in Alberta's 'ironically named Sunrise field,' to take part in 'the biggest global warming crime ever seen,' according to MikeHudema, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in Canada.  They are both cases of greenwashing.  Warren Buffet, who advised Obama, and Bill Gates are also said to consider investing in this dirtiest of oil. 

Here is what Obama said yesterday in Ottawa:
Here in Canada, you have the issue of the oil sands ... In the United States, we have issues around coal, for example, which is extraordinarily plentiful and runs a lot of our power plants. And if we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that'd make an enormous difference in how we operate. Right now, at least, the technologies are not cost-effective.
Bill Chameides, Dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who blogs at the green grok, wishes that Obama had added 'without placing a price on carbon' to the above statement, since current policies of course are far from reflecting the real cost of the pollution. 

Here are some of the basic and politically highly inconvenient facts about Canada's tar sands,  growing US dependence on them, and their disastrous contribution to global climate disruption:
  • The US Department of Energy estimates Canada's proven oil reserves at 179 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia.  But 173 billion barrels of them are in tar sands.
  • 99% of Canada's crude oil exports go to the US.
  • About 75% of Canadian oil consumed in the US comes from tar sands.
  • The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projects tar sand production to increase from 1.2 million barrels per day (mbd) currently, to 3.5 mbd in 2020.
  • Compared to conventional oil, producing a barrel of oil from tar sands emits three times as much greenhouse gases (GHG). 
  • Tar sand production also diminishes Canada's Boreal Forest, which some believe to 'store more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem on earth,' thereby releasing massive amounts of additional CO2.
As George Monbiot points out, even if CCS could cut emissions from tar sands significantly, this could be done cheaply enough to keep tar sand production economically viable, and it could be done quickly enough to prevent catastrophic climate change - all of which is highly unlikely - burning more oil will still contribute to GHG emissions, and it will not diminish any of the other forms of pollution associated with it. 

Therefore, as James Hansen argues, the only way to have at least a chance to prevent global climate disruption, is to immediately stop developing not only tar sands, but all unconventional fossil fuels, all of which are 'horrendously carbon-intensive,' including tar shale, which is found in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. 

It still remains to be seen what Obama's final policy on tar sands will be.  Some suggest that Obama believes in the possibility of a technological fix, others even hope that he will destroy tar sand production by making it prohibitively expensive.  So far, however, the evidence suggests that his rhetoric about 'a planet in peril,' remains hollow or, more appropriately, full of hot air, which will actually increase emissions.  As Bill Chameides puts it, 'PC talk fixes nothing.'

And so, Obama's climate policy is likely to fail, just like the Kyoto Protocol failed to stem GHG emissions.  Latest research has found that, while GHG emissions increased by less than 1% per year during the 1990s, they have grown by 3.5% annually since 2000, and are likely to grow even faster in the next few decades.  They are widely expected to grow by 50% by 2030. 

A UN climate panel now says emissions need to peak by 2015 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, and rich countries need to cut emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep temperatures below the 'dangerous' threshold of a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature.  As George Monbiot reports, to have a roughly even chance to stay below this crucial threshold, a recent paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research suggests that emissions must decrease by 6-8% per year from 2020 to 2040, achieving a completedecarbonization of the global economy soon after 2050.

The problem however is that reductions of more than 1% annually have only been observed during 'economic recession or upheaval,' such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Therefore, the target of the Obama administration, cutting emissions back to 1990 by 2020 and by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, which translates to about a 2% annual reduction, in Monbiot's words, 'is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming, which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet.'  And he poses what must be understood as a rhetorical question: 'Is this acceptable?'

The most plausible explanation for all of this is that the modern world is functionally differentiated into various autonomous systems, such as politics, the economy, law, science, education, media, etc., all of which perform so 'well' precisely because they operate according to their own logic, without regard for the consequences of their activities for other systems.  In the case of the nexus between economic, energy and climate policy, the latter remains largely a form of political communication that follows rather predictable patterns of political rhetoric, devoid of virtually any impact on the economic system and its emissions.

By the same token, this shows the limitations of a political strategy that would actually try to reduce emissions quickly and deeply enough.  There is simply no location or position in modern world society - be it the Oval Office, Ottawa or Fort McMurray - from which a collectively binding description of the problem could be formulated, and from which an adequate and collectively binding solution could be implemented.  In other words, who is going to tell the Chinese not to put into operation a conventional coal-fired power plant every week?  Certainly not Americans, who produce 51% of their electricity using equally dirty coal. 

The best any political strategy can do is to better understand these fundamental problems so as to better be able to concentrate its resources on those operations that are most likely to actually make a difference.  The first step along this way is to identify and criticise what are obviously flawed, if not to say fake strategies, so as not waste precious resources in their futile pursuit. 
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Principal researcher & project manager of the Progressive Strategy Studies Project at the Commonwealth Institute in Cambridge, MA.
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