Are the oil sands a "carbon bomb"? Will the construction of new pipelines unleash this "bomb" on the climate?
There's lots of confusion about these questions. On Friday, the U.S. State Department released an assessment that stated the Keystone XL pipeline would have a negligible climate impact, essentially because a market analysis suggested that other options will arise for transporting additional carbon from the oil sands. Environmentalists are crying foul, energy and industry experts are arguing both sides, and pundits are wondering why the report was released on a Friday afternoon, when few people follow the news. It's hard to know who to trust.
The figure below, based on one figure made by Keith Stewart from Greenpeace and shown to me by Mark Jaccard in the fall, suggests the answer to both questions could be considered "yes", but not in the way people normally say.
|The first column is existing, planned and announced oil sands projects;|
the orange bars are oil sands production in the IEA future scenarios.
Production is assumed to be 80% of capacity, following the IEA methods.
The expansion of the oil sands is by no means the sole driver of the extreme warming in those scenarios. As estimated in a much-discussed article by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver last year, the total amount of carbon stored in the oil sands is "only" sufficient to raise the world's temperature by 0.24-0.50°C. Now, some may argue that is enough to consider the oil sands a "carbon bomb" - scientist John Abraham argued as much in the Guardian recently. Others disagree, since Swart and Weaver's analysis showed that the potential "warming" from the oil sands is tiny compared to that from the world's coal stores.
The IEA scenarios suggest that both arguments miss the point. The oil sands are only one source of oil, and only one source of fossil carbon. That carbon will not be exploited in a vacuum. In analysing this problem, you need to consider what role the oil sands are likely to play in the global oil and global energy system. A world in which the oil sands are fully exploited is a world in which many other sources of oil and carbon are also exploited. In a sense, the State Department's market analysis for Keystone XL was too limited in scope to capture the global carbon picture.
Regardless of whether the carbon in the oil sands should be directly labelled a "carbon bomb", the IEA Outlook suggests a world with greater oil sands extraction is, in essence, a "carbon bomb world". If we want to avoid a world that is >3.5°C warmer, we likely need a global energy system in which the expansion of extraction in the oil sands is constrained.
This is why so many climate policy experts here in B.C. oppose the pipeline expansion or construction. Absent carbon regulations or pricing, the best available tool for slowing or capping oil sands expansion is blocking new transportation options. The proposed pipelines would move additional bitumen; new pipelines would allow for construction of many of those projects with regulatory approval or under regulatory review.
Does this mean the "science" says you should oppose the pipelines?
The hard truth is that there's no "right" answer on climate policy. Science, or energy modeling, can guide our decisions, but cannot make decisions for us. Each of us will develop an opinion about the pipelines and oil sands expansion based on other considerations as well. My hope, and I suspect the hope of most climate experts, is that people think about these numbers before making a decision.