Recently, I was directed to a sophomoric screed prepared by a climate campaigner at the Wilderness Committee. The paper (or possibly fundraising pamphlet?) “Time’s Up for the Tar Sands” represents some of the worst writing I have recently encountered on the oil sands. Frankly it reads as if an earnest grade schooler was asked to produce a negative article on the oil sands, the writing is simply that bad. What is most amazing is that according to the document itself, in addition to the author, it had three individual editors (Rumnique Nannar, Beth Clarke, Eric Reder). Honestly, this is such a target-rich load of hogwash that I don’t think I can do it credit in under 5000 words. Lacking the energy to write a blog post that long I am going to highlight some of the most egregious prose from this hilariously bad article.
Let’s start with the format. The author refers to the work as a “paper” but it actually consists of a number of very brief hot-takes on various topics relating to the oil sands (or tar sands as the author prefers). Within each sub-section are the occasional link to a reference section in the back. This may be intended to convince the reader that the paper has some academic merit but a look at the references identifies that most are simply links to news articles, articles from anti-oil NGOs and other opinion pieces that don’t provide any academic heft but rather present the various authors’ opinions, which the Wilderness Committee author treats as if they were facts. What is more troubling is that while the author provides links to other documents for some of his claims, most are not supported with references and many are either deceiving or simply wrong. To demonstrate let’s look at page one.
The author starts with a series of attribution statements:
This freakish warmth has led to drought-fuelled wars in the Middle East and North Africa, the imminent extinction of the Great Barrier Reef and successive super typhoons rocking the Philippines and the South Pacific.
Now attributing various world-wide events to climate change is a common thing for activists, but when push comes to shove, the data actually isn’t there to support most of those attributions. In this case, the IPCC SREX makes this fact abundantly clear, as does the most recent research which steps back from attributing individual weather events to climate change. As for the “imminent extinction of the Great Barrier Reef” and blaming wars in Africa and the Middle-East on climate change those charges have been generally shown to be baseless. While the Great Barrier Reef is under severe stress caused by a number of factors, including climate change, following the end of the latest El Nino event it is now recovering. It’s death is not imminent and the primary cause of the recent bleachings was the El Nino which specialists in the field agree was not caused by climate change. As for the warfare angle, the people who actually study conflict in those regions agree that:
The next statement, while referenced to an anti-fossil fuel NGO, is demonstrably not true:
Humanity cannot build any new coal, oil or gas infrastructure — anywhere on the planet — if it hopes to achieve the goal of keeping global warming at a safe level, set at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference.
The Paris Agreement makes no such requirement and such a sweeping statement is simply unsupportable. I know that activists love hyperbole but seriously, humanity can’t build any infrastructure? A gas station adding a pump island is too much? Please be serious here. Improving infrastructure can be carried out under our Paris Agreement commitments. The important thing is emissions not infrastructure.
The next claim is made twice in this introduction: “Canada is hellbent on pursuing the world’s dirtiest oil” and”Tar sands oil is the dirtiest and most expensive on Earth.” This is, of course, incorrect. Recent studies by California’s Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board for their Low Carbon Fuel Standard made the following findings:
- There are 13 oil fields in California, plus crude oil blends originating in at least six other countries, that generate a higher level of upstream greenhouse gas emissions than Canadian dilbit blends;
- Crude oil from Alaska’s North Slope, which makes up about 12 per cent of California’s total crude slate, is actually “dirtier” than the Canadian dilbit known as “Access Western Blend”;
- The “dirtiest oil in North America” is not produced in Canada, but just outside Los Angeles, where the Placerita oil field generates about twice the level of upstream emissions as Canadian oil sands production; and
- The title of “world’s dirtiest oil” goes to Brass crude blend from Nigeria, where the uncontrolled release of methane during the oil extraction process generates upstream GHG emissions that are over four times higher than Canadian dilbit.
As for the claim that the oil sands are the most expensive oil, that dubious title likely goes to the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan but it certainly doesn’t go to oil sands oil most of which can be produced at very reasonable costs.
Honestly, the author even recognizes that what he has written is not the truth. When I challenged him on it on Twitter his response was classically Trumpesque claiming that if he re-wrote the section it would be correct so that should be good enough. The problem is that when you make a definitive statement and it is shown to be incorrect you can’t turn around and say “ignore what I wrote” that is not how these things work. It is either correct or not. If you write “most expensive on earth” then all the words apply not just one.
The next section presents a simplistic description of one type of oil sands development. Certainly the new Kearl oil sands project is a surface mine. It produces low-GHG oil with a solid decommissioning plan. The problem with the introduction is that 80% of the oil sands production is anticipated to be from in situ developments not surface mines. To present a technology used for 20% of the resource as the primary/only way to extract the entire resource is disingenuous at best and deliberately deceiving at worst.
You get the point, the introduction is simply a hash of obsolete, half-right and debunked talking points. I’m over 1000 words into this post and I am only about 250 words into the introduction. I have barely scratched the surface of this “paper”. The simple problem is that the effort involved in de-bunking bad writing far exceeds the effort required to produce it.Lacking the space I will only present some quickies that jumped out at me throughout the remainder of the document.
Later in the introduction the author link to the famously-flawed “carbon budget” paper titled “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C” and authored by McGlade and Ekins. I address that paper in detail in this post.To summarize the IPCC does not say that 85% of our oil sands have to be left in the ground to meet the 2oC goal. Two mid-level academics from the University College of London are making that demand.
The article also repeats the idea that we should leave our oil supply to foreign governments. I address this fallacy in my post: Let’s Have An Honest Conversation About Pipelines And Ethical Oil.
The article dismisses oil-by-rail and suggests that: “Low prices have already caused North American oil-by-rail shipments to plummet.” Certainly oil-by-rail spiked in 2014 and dropped by about half in 2016 but the amount has stabilized and is anticipated to increase with the decrease in Alaskan crude available to the Puget Sound and the US desire to export US Bakken production from the West Coast.
The article even goes as far as to suggest that pipefitters with an average hourly wage of $33.50 /hr should give up their jobs to work as solar installers who have an average salary of $17.55/hr. An option that is easy to say when you are paid to be an activist by an NGO but is less practical if you have a family and a mortgage.
Honestly, I’m running out of speed here. The truth of the matter is that you would expect that an organization like the Wilderness Committee could make a competent case against oil sands expansion using real data and not a bunch of half-truths and biased references. Instead, they throw out this sophomoric pamphlet that they call an “article” and end it with a request for money. I remember a time when I had a membership in the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and when I would regularly visit their office and bookstore in Victoria and even donated money to the cause. If this is what they are producing these days I’m glad I let my membership lapse a long time ago.