Why Coal is the Baddest Fossil Fuel… But No Green Light for Tar Sands Oil

by Franke James

chris evans pembina institute 2002Suncor Upgrader adjacent to the Athabasca River; photo by Chris Evans, Pembina Insitute

It came as a surprise to me that Coal is by far and away the worst fossil fuel. Unconventional Gas came in second, and the Tar Sands Oil came in last. This according to the eminent climate scientist, Dr. Andrew Weaver writing in Nature Climate Change. In his article The Alberta oil sands and climate, co-authored with Neil Swart, coal is the ‘baddest‘ of all the fossil fuels. Weaver and Swart conclude that the burning of the dirty tar sands oil is not going to have a significant impact: “the warming would be almost undetectable at our significance level.” However Weaver and Swart’s paper is confusing as it did not calculate “Well to Wheel” but simply the burning of tar sands oil. It also did not address the overall environmental degradation and impact on inhabitants in the region (more on that below).

So, is Weaver giving the Tar Sands the Green Light?
Nope — just listen to Weaver in Greenpeace’s ‘Stop the Tar Sands’ video talk about the tar sands as an example of “end-to-end environmental degradation” and the dangerous legacy of greenhouse gases on future generations.

Andrew Weaver in Greenpeace’s ‘Stop the Tar Sands’ 2009 campaign video

Weaver says, “As a society we will live and die by our use of coal.”

Humanity’s survival is at stake
Having just read Dr. Weaver’s latest book “Generation Us” I think he’s made a calculated decision that we need to step back from the heated rhetoric and coolly assess which of the fossil fuels is the most damaging. Because humanity’s survival is at stake here – and we’re running out of time to tackle this problem.

Weaver and Swart write, “If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels.”

The Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipeline are both examples of expensive infrastructure that supports fossil fuel dependence. Studies like Weaver/Swart’s offer scientific findings to guide government policy makers on what to target to most effectively reduce greenhouse gases.

Nonetheless, this scientific finding by Weaver, and his doctoral student Neil Swart, could be misinterpreted as a “Green Light” for the Tar Sands — and that would be very wrong. Europe will soon be voting on the EU Fuel Quality Directive. That vote will decide whether to label the tar sands oil as ‘dirty’. Damian Carrington in The Guardian wrote, “The EU proposal is to label tar sands oil as causing 22% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil on average. The increase results from the energy needed to blast the bitumen from the bedrock and refine it… In public, the Canadian government claimed that tar sands are “sustainable” but in private it has admitted there is no “credible scientific information” to support this.”

No get-out-of-jail-free card
In the Globe and Mail, Dr. Weaver commented, “We’re not giving a get-out-of-jail-free card to the tar-sands industry. This is not the purpose of our study.” Indeed, he is “absolutely opposed” to the Northern Gateway pipeline on social and ecological grounds, and says policies like the EU fuel directive are “probably the way of the future,” arguing that governments must look for ways to “shift consumer demand away” from hydrocarbons.”

Neil Swart commented, “If the populations of the USA and Canada were to extensively utilize the Alberta oil-sands proven reserve, it would almost certainly be incompatible with doing a globally equal share in keeping warming below 2°C.” (see site for details). Of course, there are many, many other reasons (water, toxins, land-use changes, etc etc) why the tar sands are problematic too.”

From’s article “Coal is worst, but oilsands are still harmful: climate scientists

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada weighed in on the issue, emphasizing the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels altogether.

“While coal is a huge global emissions problem, the dirty tarsands remain Canada’s largest climate challenge,” Hudema said in a statement Monday. “Tarsands development is the fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The bottom line message for the Harper government is that, as Professor Weaver says, we need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. That includes coal, unconventional natural gas and, of course, tarsands.”

NASA’s Dr. James Hansen on the Weaver/Swart report:

“The argument that the currently known amount of carbon in the tar sands pit is small compared to the total fossil fuels burned in two centuries is fallacious and misleading — every single source, even Saudi Arabia, is small compared to the total. If we once get hooked on tar sands and set up infrastructure, the numbers will grow as mining capabilities increase. Tar sands are particularly egregious, because you get relatively less energy per unit carbon emitted and there is associated environmental damage in the mining.”

This news has exploded in the media, on social media. On Facebook — where I first heard of it — I asked,

“Andrew Weaver, I’d like to hear your analysis on the water pollution of the Athabasca watershed caused by the tar sands, which was written up in a ‘secret’ report by Environment Canada (obtained through an ATIP to Postmedia News).”

Page 7 from ATIP document released by Environment Canada
Download full pdf. Read, “‘Secret’ Environment Canada presentation warns of oilsands’ impact on habitat.” And take another look at that photo of the Athabasca River at the top of this post.

Andrew Weaver responded on Facebook:

“Exactly Franke James there are many profound issues associated with the tar sands exploration. I have always said that the tar sands are a symptom of a bigger problem. The bigger problem is our societal dependence on fossil fuels. As we use up the easy to find resources, we start going to more extreme measures to find access to what is left. The result is increasingly environmentally hazardous approaches to extraction.”

So, while Weaver and Swart’s findings about coal versus tar sands oil is interesting, I still have grave concerns about the Tar Sands, and their impact on the people and wildlife who live in and around them.

For the Beaver Lake Cree Nation it comes at a cost: their traditional way of life. The BBC reported: “It’s got to the point where we have to be very cautious about the animals we are taking from the land because it is not uncommon for us to pull a fish out of the lake that has cancers on it,” said Crystal Lameman, a member of the community.”

The tar sands are a strategic energy resource which Canada will develop, however we must find ways to develop them so that are truly sustainable. Currently the Alberta Tar Sands are an example of Ecocide, as British lawyer Polly Higgins defines it in her submission to the UN:

Ecocide: The extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

The Guardian wrote about Ecocide and the Test trial which delivered a judgement on the Gulf Oil Spill and the Alberta Tar Sands. Higgins “argues the link between ecocide and genocide is that damage and destruction to the environment depletes the Earth’s resources, which leads to conflict. Only by making ecocide a crime for which individuals can be jailed, will we change the norm which allows profit to be put before the planet, she told me.”

Is it right to use the sky as a sewer? by Franke James


Why Coal is the Baddest Fossil Fuel… But No Green Light for Tar Sands Oil © 2012
Writing Franke James
Sewer Sky poster by Franke James
Suncor Upgrader Photo by Chris Evans, Pembina Institute

Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart in Nature Climate Change: “The Alberta oil sands and climate
Backgrounder by Weaver and Swart
Test trial convicts fossil fuel bosses of ‘ecocide’.
Polly Higgins “Eradicating Ecocide

14 Responses: One Comment and 13 Tweets

  • Steve Caunce says:

    So coal is worse than bitumen, so it’s OK to pump out the Tar Sands.
    But nuclear fuel leaks are worse than coal, so let’s keep on burning coal.
    Nuclear war lets out more radiation than leaks, so don’t bother building safe plants.
    A giant asteroid would wipe out more life than a nuclear war, so let’s keep building armed missiles.
    ~ Logic for Dummies, a new book by the Ethical Oil people.

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