That image, which you can easily find by googling, is perhaps becoming emblematic of tar sands mining. At Treehugger in 2008 this:
Environmental Defense has called Alberta’s tar sands ‘the most destructive project on earth’, but perhaps the UN’s senior advisor on water, Maude Barlow, says it best. After a recent bus and helicopter tour of a tar sands operation in Fort McMurray she had one word to describe what she saw: Mordor.
For those not up on the geography of Tolkein’s Middle-earth, or even Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, Mordor refers to the nearly barren, devastated, stinking land wherein, beyond the Black Gate, lies Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr and the fires of Mount Doom…
This post tells us that in ten years the mining in Alberta will encompass an area as large as Florida.
Recently Climate Progress told us that Canada’s large reserves of tar sands are poised to become the number one source of US crude oil imports in 2010, and by 2030 oil sands imports could increase to account for 20-36% of US oil product imports (crude and refined) from the 2009 level of 8%.
Has Barack Obama gone bananas?
The oil that is extracted from Canadian dirt is being portrayed as saving America from energy dependence on the unstable Middle East, or an environmental catastrophe in the making — depending on the perspective.
I thought at the time that it would be a test as to whether Obama was serious about climate change if he signed up to import oil from tar sands. On this basis he is a big FAIL.
One of the problems at Copenhagen was that the US brought far too little to the table. A target for 2020 equivalent to 3% down from 1990 levels for one of the highest per capita emitters bespeaks a laggard rather than a leader. China was able to say that the West wasn’t serious about their responsibilities, and until they were the Chinese wouldn’t sign up to quantitative cuts.
At the same time Obama needed the Chinese to sign up to quantitative cuts if he was going to have any chance of getting his legislation through the Senate. This article is a sample of the tough games that were being played. When cornered China would always fall back on the legacy issue, as it did when confronted head-on out of frustration by Angela Merkel. The West’s emissions got us to where we are, so it’s up to the West to fix it.
These irreconcilable positions on the part of the two super-emitters are still unresolved. Until they are, the Europeans won’t increase the ambition of their targets, serious consideration won’t be given to the G77 desire for a 1.5C limit and progress will be limited to action on specific programs such as REDDS and financial assistance to poor countries for adaptation.
Generally speaking all the conflicts that were problematic at Copenhagen are unresolved. After the latest round of talks just concluded in Bonn the main difference is that people are talking to each other rather than shouting across an abyss. The best summary I’ve seen so far is from BBC correspondent Richard Black on the second last day of the talks. Amongst the tale of division there is this:
it’s a sign of how fast things have turned around since Barack Obama’s election that some delegates are saying the US is now a bigger obstacle than it was under George W Bush.
New UN climate chief Christiana Figueres sees the need to develop tranparency and trust. To achieve this she seems to favour delivering on specific projects, of building the wall brick by brick rather than a comprehensive legally-binding, ambitious, fair and balanced agreement. But many developing countries see such an agreement as absolutely essential. From Bangladesh:
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t deliver at Copenhagen; and if we can’t deliver at Cancun… it will be unfortunate, it will be tragic, it will be a holocaust.”
To me, leadership from and a resolution of the differences between China and the US are the key to real progress. Such progress should inlude taking the request for more ambitious targets seriously. This is a matter of an existential threat for the small island states, for example.
Obama doesn’t seem to appreciate how far off the pace his country is.
Meanwhile we must deal with James Hansen’s contention that tar sands are seriously a no-go area. In his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen devotes a whole chapter to the Venus syndrome, the notion that a runaway greenhouse effect could boil the oceans dry leaving the planet unsuitable for life of any kind.
Hansen ends the chapter thus:
After the ice is gone,* would the Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all the reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.
(*Hansen says that the Antarctic ice sheet formed 34mya when CO2 levels fell to about 450ppm, plus or minus 100. He says it would be “exceedingly foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450ppm.”)
I’ve been wanting to post on this topic, but for a non-scientist it is a challenging area to get into. I respect Hansen’s science, and his opinions based on the science. My only query is that he seemed to me to rely critically on one piece of research, which was the clincher for him, about what happened in the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago. But the critical factor is the release of methane hydrates (post also forthcoming eventually) and that is all too plausible.
This is the paragraph before the one quoted above:
The paleoclimate record does not provide a case with a climate forcing of the magnitude and speed that will occur if fossil fuels are all burned. Models are nowhere near the stage at which they can predict reliably when major ice sheet disintegration will begin. Nor can we say how close we are to methane hydrate instability. But these are questions of when, not if. If we burn all the fossil fuels, the ice sheets almost surely will melt entirely, with the final sea level rise about 75 meters (250 feet), with most of that possibly occurring within a time scale of centuries. Methane hydrates are likely to be more extensive and vulnerable now than they were in the early Cenozoic. It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming.
Now Barry Brook at BraveNewClimate has addressed the issue specifically in the terms put by Hansen. Go read it. Barry considers that there’s a better than 1% chance of delivering the Venus syndrome if we continue burning fossil fuels with abandon. That is serious and time for some rational risk management.
No-one is suggesting that burning a bit of fuel from tar sands will destroy life on the planet. But the US has started on a very dangerous addiction.
In his address from the Oval Office today Obama pointed out that the US has 2% of the world’s oil reserves and 20% of consumption. Something has to change. He said:
The time to embrace a clean energy future is now.
As far as I can see he has three aims. Firstly, to let people know he is in control of the oil spill in the Gulf (really?) Secondly, could he please have his climate change bill passed by the Senate? And thirdly, it’s time we all got really serious about climate change.
But did he address the challenge in terms that it warranted? Robert Reich thinks not:
Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point. The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation. We have not seen the likes not since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America. Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs. Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.
Our President must tell is like it is — not with rancor but with the passion and conviction of a leader who recognizes what is happening and rallies the nation behind him.
The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight. President Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office was, to be frank, vapid.