Why the tar sands will close

Over a year ago, I was directed to a scientific paper by two scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute, Pushker A. Kharecha and James Hansen, which compared our known reserves of fossil fuels with the carbon we can safely burn without undue risk of destabilizing our climate. This paper concluded that in order to contain atmospheric carbon dioxide below 450 ppm, which would raise global temperatures about 2 degrees above preindustrial levels, we would need to cut down on our use of coal and unconventional oil (like the tar sands), as well as emissions from deforestation.

By the time this article was published in August 2008, one of the authors, James Hansen, NASA’s best known climatologist, had already declared that 450 ppm was no longer a responsible target. It was based on his assessment in December 2007 that the 350 movement was born, calling to keep global temperatures within 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. The movement is supported by Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of scientists which reviews and summarizes published climate science for policymakers. It’s also supported by notable Canadians such as David Suzuki, Thomas Homer-Dixon and Sheila Watt-Cloutier. As a result of his assessment, Hansen has been calling for a much more rapid, urgent phaseout of both coal and unconventional oil.

In March 2009, 2500 climate scientists gathered in Copenhagen to update scientific assessments in advance of the Copenhagen climate meeting in December. They also concluded that the 2 degree limit could no longer be considered safe.

About a year ago, Hansen called the tar sands “one of our planet’s greatest threats”. Based on alarming science just emerging, he now believes that our planet is in grave peril of becoming Venus-like, with a thick atmosphere retaining temperatures far above the boiling point and making life impossible for our descendants. This is outlined in his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, published in December 2009. The rapid phaseout of the dirtiest fossil fuels has now become very urgent.

A huge campaign against the tar sands has emerged in the United Kingdom. Other countries have small but rapidly growing campaigns as well. It would be prudent even for those Canadians who doubt the climate science to recognize the vulnerability we’re creating by focusing our economy too heavily on a product that’s becoming the object of global boycotts.

Recently, I’ve frequently been asked, by people who are either curious or angry, why it is that people concerned about climate change are picking on the tar sands. Isn’t there another way to contain emissions? Couldn’t we cut our birth rate, drive more economical cars, change more lightbulbs and so on?

The answer is no.

Eliminating the tar sands can’t be compared to efforts at personal reductions. It’s a different calculation. You can choose to drive a more economical vehicle, become a vegetarian, add insulation to your attic, work from home and so on. These choices will reduce the amount of carbon you’re responsible for and they’ll make it easier for you to adapt when we can no longer burn fossil fuels, either because they run out or because we stop using them. However, any personal reductions you make won’t stop an oil company from finding someone else who will be happy to buy the oil you didn’t. What’s more they’ll probably buy it at a lower price than they would have had to pay if other people weren’t making personal reductions. If other consumers are unconcerned about the climate, your hard work at reductions only makes it easier for them to buy more.

So Hansen and Kharecha were making a different calculation. Since they determined that we can’t burn all the fossil fuels available to us unless we want to risk murdering our own descendants, they were picking and choosing which sources of fossil fuels to leave in the ground forever. Whatever personal choices are made, any fuels purchased would have to come from the sources still available.

So the next question might be “Why can’t we pump less oil from Saudi Arabia instead?”. The answer is that Kharecha and Hansen were choosing to close down those fossil fuel sources which were responsible for the most carbon for every unit of energy released. It’s important to look at this in the reverse – they were choosing to close down those sources of carbon dioxide emissions that would give us the least amount of energy. If we choose to close something else instead, all we will do is reduce the amount of energy available to us for the same amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

We do not yet have a working political tool to cut down carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Even as climate science has become more alarming, global (and Canadian) emissions are rising instead of falling. The Copenhagen talks were a tremendous disappointment. While a handful of countries have succeeded in reducing their emissions, emissions in other countries have only grown faster. What the tool for cutting down emissions will look like when it emerges I can’t say for certain, but whatever it is, it’s clear to me that it will kill the tar sands operations.

We can imagine, for example, that when the world takes climate science seriously, we will decide to simply close down the dirtiest fossil fuel sources until the only sources still operating can emit only the carbon within the budget we will allow ourselves. The tar sands would close.

Perhaps instead, we will develop a global carbon tax. What this would do is drive a wedge between the price consumers pay at the pump and the price that producers receive for their product. Because there’s a limit to what consumers are willing to pay before they choose other options that don’t require as much fuel, less fossil fuels would be burned and the price would fall somewhat. Those fuel sources that are most expensive or energy intensive to extract would no longer be economical to produce. The tar sands would close.

Or perhaps we will divide the carbon budget by year, so that every year we emit less carbon. We could allow only as much carbon to be extracted as we allowed, and permits would have to be bought at auction for any fossil fuels extracted. The auction would again create a carbon price which would drive the same price wedge between consumer and producer. The tar sands would close.

Maybe the world will develop a clean fuel standard that only allows so many emissions to go into the production of its fuels. The United States is developing such a standard now. If such a standard becomes universal, the tar sands will close.

Given the directions we’ve taken in the past, it’s likely that world leaders will divide the carbon budget both by year and by country, and allocate a fixed amount for each country within the carbon budget that the planet will allow. Most countries will have to be on board to prevent oil companies from finding new markets for their product. Whether individual countries choose to tax, auction or simply constrain their carbon won’t matter, so long as in the end they burn less. And whatever method they choose, when you can’t burn all the fuel on the planet, the fuel that will always be chosen will be the fuel that’s most economical and energy efficient to produce. The tar sands will close.

But what about carbon capture and sequestration? It’s not going to help here. The problem is that the fuel is ultimately burned in cars, home heating units and other locations for which carbon capture will never be available. So the amount of that fuel burned has to go down, it can’t be sequestered. If carbon capture and sequestration eventually comes to be economical in some circumstances, and the tar sands industry chose to employ it in the extraction and refining process, it would only make tar sands operations even more expensive and energy intensive per gallon of fuel in the car. Tar sands fuel wouldn’t get any more appealing. If you’re going to choose a fuel to burn in your car or home, you would never choose tar sands fuel, given a choice.

When sober scientists say the tar sands must close, they are not picking on one country or industry. I’m not a scientist but I promote policy. It’s not my objective to close the tar sands. My objective is to reduce emissions. But I recognize that in order to reduce emissions enough, the tar sands will have to close, whether we want them to or not. Any government that’s serious about climate change and understands the science must be prepared to see the tar sands close, and soon. Government leaders who claim they’re serious about climate change but still envision tar sands growth for decades into the future are lying to you. They are owned by the oil industry, and they’re willing to sacrifice your children’s future for short-term profit.

7 responses to “Why the tar sands will close”

  1. Jem Cooper writes:

    You say “Given the directions we’ve taken in the past, it’s likely that world leaders will divide the carbon budget both by year and by country, and allocate a fixed amount for each country within the carbon budget that the planet will allow.” I say dream on.

    We certainly need an international arrangement to tackle global warming. But for cap and trade, cap and dividend or carbon tax to work globally there needs to be agreement either about how to share the limited allowable carbon emissions between sovereign nations or about how to share the trillions of revenue from an international tax or auction of allowances. Neither seems likely to happen any time soon if ever.

    I have a simple, effective and popular alternative.

    In a recent Times Online live debate, 85% voted that “Fossil fuel companies should be obliged to sequester an increasing fraction of the carbon content of the products they sell to avoid dangerous climate change”.

    You mention that it is impractical to capture carbon from home heating and automobiles. But it is not impractical to use electricity generated with carbon capture for these applications. There will remain a few applications such as transport and heating in remote areas and aviation for which mains electricity cannot be used and I do not advocate increasing the cultivated area to provide biofuel. But the downwelling polar currents will continue to move about 6% of today’s emissions to the deep ocean for over a thousand years and this could allow limited emissions for these difficult applications.

    For details on why my proposal would be easier for all countries to agree to than cap and trade or carbon tax, how it would drive energy saving, renewables and nuclear, how it would be implemented and how it would stop global warming see my website.

    When fuel producers are obliged to place contracts for carbon capture and sequestration for a proportion of the carbon in their fuel, as I propose, I think there will be power companies from around the world competing to take their money. I hope we will be left wondering what all the fuss around cutting emissions was about.

  2. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Thanks Jem,

    So far, all the international agreements have had allocations by country. That’s not the smartest way I see of doing things, but that’s what I meant by predicting that way forward. It’s now a habit in climate negotiations, and habits are difficult to break. I would welcome other options.

    The people who voted for companies to sequester an increasing share of their emissions likely don’t understand the challenges. Many people think that we can take the emissions from a coal plant and sequester it with a fairly simple alteration. Few people know that carbon sequestration is not economically viable anywhere on the globe in the current economy, that there are no large scale models anywhere, or that it requires immense infrastructure rivaling the pipeline infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry.

    Your suggestion to impose a growing percentage of sequestration is interesting, but it wouldn’t be my preferred route, and it won’t solve the tar sands problem any time soon. Other approaches will have to be taken in the near term and the tar sands will be the victim.

    One of the reasons it’s not my preferred route is that I don’t believe that governments should be imposing one solution over another. Regulating carbon capture essentially amounts to an enormous subsidy to that technology. I attended a forum on carbon capture, which had some opponents, an industry expert and a representative of Statoil Hydro, which runs the Sleipner facility in Norway. What they all agreed was that carbon capture and storage was uneconomical until carbon prices reached about $70/tonne for advanced oil recovery, $100/tonne for coal generation and upwards of $200/tonne for some tar sands operations. If we can get emissions reductions for $50/tonne through efficiency, why wouldn’t we go for that?

    Another reason it’s not my preferred route is that it’s just not ready and we need emissions reductions now. While the wind industry is doubling every three years, carbon capture and storage has yet to demonstrate one economically viable large-scale facility. Even carbon capture promoters are suggesting it will need enormous public subsidy to hopefully achieve something workable by 2020. Meanwhile, if the wind industry just continues growing the way it is, by 2020 almost 10% of global power generation will be from wind.

    If we were to impose a carbon tax of, say $50/tonne, efficiency, conservation and wind would just get even more attractive. Carbon capture still wouldn’t be able to get a toehold. I’m not in favour of legislating more expensive solutions.

    And when we finally get to a carbon price that will make it worthwhile to capture the carbon from tar sands oil refining, it probably still won’t be high enough to discourage burning the product in a car.

    Finally, carbon capture, like other technologies that are touted as the solution to everything, would tend, if truly treated as a miracle cure, to create more problems than it solves.

    For one thing carbon capture doesn’t solve the problem of all the other emissions from coal and tar sands oil. In fact it exacerbates the problem because carbon capture increases the energy required, so more sulphur goes up for every unit of energy.

    Also, there are always fugitive emissions, so carbon capture will never be emissions free. This is fine if you’re trying to get negative emissions by burning forest waste – every bit you get out of the atmosphere is a bonus. But it’s a real problem if you’re looking for a way to eliminate the emissions from fossil fuels.

    The infrastructure required to move gas around would actually be larger than the fossil fuel infrastructure it has taken a century to build. This would be a massive, energy intensive project, and once again most of the emissions involved would not lend themselves to sequestration. And it would take time, more time than we have.

    It really can’t solve the space heating problem. Right now we’re burning natural gas at 90% efficiency with low NOx and SOx. Switching to electric heat powered by coal generation with carbon sequestration means we move to a more polluting fuel and reduce efficiency below 25%. The carbon emissions are comparable. We’re no further ahead for fighting climate change and we’ve got worse air quality to deal with.

    But finally, as a method of extending the lifespan of fossil fuels, it just extends our agony. If we insist on the high energy lifestyle we have now and continue to power it with fossil fuels, even if carbon capture succeeds brilliantly with 100% efficiency and no fugitive emissions (both physical impossibilities) it just means we’ll have the exactly same crisis a couple decades later. Far smarter, if we can, to learn to live within the energy budget that’s actually renewed every year.

    I don’t necessarily oppose carbon capture, in fact I think it might prove to be critical for drawing carbon from the atmosphere, since we’ll probably need to find a way of getting negative emissions the way we’re going. I expect it will have a place. Just not right away.

  3. Jem Cooper writes:

    Of course carbon capture is not economical in its own right. It always adds substantially to investment and operating cost. That is why it is necessary that fuel producers should pay for it as I propose. No generator using carbon capture could compete with power from uncaptured plants without a big payment.

    The International Energy Agency (an intergovernmental body) https://web.archive.org/web/20091207063952/http://www.iea.org/subjectqueries/ccs/what_is_ccs.asp have said that achieving climate stabilisation in 2050 will cost at least 70% more without carbon capture and that the power sector will need to be largely decarbonised by then. Carbon capture is therefore an essential part of the most economic solution. Every year we delay reducing emissions we squander about fifteen years of our children’s meagre ration, based on an ongoing ocean uptake of only 6% of today’s emissions see http://jemsavestheplanet.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-on-global-warming.html

    Recent reports from the World Future Energy Summit
    say that “speakers pointed to the maturation of CCS and many successful pilot facilities around the world. And they set the expectation that the industry is now ready to see production facilities built in large numbers.”

    It is not the government that would be pushing carbon capture with my proposal but the fuel producers. Whatever else we may do to save energy or generate clean electricity if we are burning fossil fuel we need to capture most of the carbon dioxide and it is much easier to catch it at source than after it is diluted in the atmosphere.

    I agree that capturing vehicle emissions is impractical and that drivers will not be put off by the modest increase in gasoline price associated with my proposal. But that is no reason not to make capture happen as soon as possible for power stations, steel works, cement factories etc.

  4. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Thanks again Jem,

    The argument about squandering our kids future is not much of an argument for carbon capture, because it’s not ready now. Carbon capture has been the greatest excuse for inaction so far. Because we can’t impose it now, the oil and coal industries keep demanding subsidies to develop it and suggest we sit tight until it’s ready in 2020.

    Meanwhile, because it’s coming, that seems to be an excuse to keep building coal plants WITHOUT carbon sequestration. Not sure how that works, but it happens all the time. Oh, we’ll switch them all over when the technology arrives, we are told. It’s that kind of mentality that’s torching our children’s future.

    If you want action now, we need to focus immediately on what’s more economically available. Right now that’s efficiency and renewables. Over time that may change.

    A few years ago, the miracle that was going to save us was ethanol. A decade and several billion dollars later we have a huge subsidy-dependent lobby with a product that makes a negligible to negative impact on climate and threatens to starve the world to run our cars. I sure don’t want to develop another parasitic industry. If carbon capture can work, its proponents can demonstrate. And the best way to do that without public subsidy is with a high enough carbon price, either directly imposed or resulting from caps or other limitations.

    We can hope the industry proponents are right and carbon capture is ready in 2020. I sure do. But until it is, we can’t depend on it.

    While I don’t completely dismiss the IEA report, I take it with a grain of salt. The IEA has consistently overestimated projections of global energy demand, consistently overestimated reserves of fossil fuels and consistently underestimated the growth of renewables to a ridiculous degree.

    That’s why they think that wind power will grow at what they think is an astronomical rate of 3% per year but will still have a shrinking share. Meanwhile, in the real world, wind is doubling capacity about every 3 years and with that it’s share of global generation. The crystal ball the IEA is using appears to be defective. Myself, I don’t pretend to know how to use crystal balls.

    Still, it’s likely that they’re right that when carbon capture matures, we’d be stupid not to put it to use.

    Of course I also agree with you that it’s much better to get at emissions at the source rather than pull them out of the air. Let me explain.

    James Hansen and others are suggesting we need to eliminate emissions from coal in developed countries within ten years. That means that by the time carbon capture will hopefully be ready, we won’t be able to emit any more of the carbon from coal, not even the residual emissions that escape from carbon capture. Furthermore, Hansen says we need a linear reduction in coal use through that period. Another way of phrasing it is that the entire budget we have for coal emissions is about half of what we used in the last decade.

    So anyone who builds a coal plant today anticipating carbon capture is not being honest with the public about the effect. Coal plants aren’t profitable if built for a 10-year life expectancy.

    In other words, by the time carbon capture arrives to save the day, most of the remaining coal should be off-limits, though there will still be a small coal emissions budget in developing countries.

    Fortunately, we can draw down emissions at that time from the atmosphere. I’m not suggesting here that we literally attempt to suck it up from the air. I’m talking about sequestering carbon from forest and agricultural waste, burned in much the same way as coal is burned now to help balance out the loads in power generation.

    I wanted to touch on something you wrote in your previous post as well. While in the past scientists believed that the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon will leave us with a small sustainable carbon emissions budget, that’s no longer believed to be true. Studies by Susan Solomon and others indicate that as we stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere, the oceans will stop being a net sink and will interact with the atmosphere, emitting carbon right back. So it’s now understood that complete elimination will be necessary.

    Of course, that realization might just mean that carbon capture will perform an even more vital, though less robust role. And understanding, as you do, how difficult it is to capture carbon that’s already been emitted reinforces the stupidity of having put it all up there. Figuring out how to leave it in the ground in the first place would have been far, far easier than trying to stuff it all back now.

    I’m enjoying this conversation. Thank you.

  5. Jem Cooper writes:

    I guess it would be unreasonable to expect those supplying or using fossil fuel to say that carbon capture is ready and affordable because it would substantially reduce their competitiveness.

    I remember when we wanted to get lead out of gasoline, everyone said they were not ready, it would be very difficult and expensive. Then along came a tax incentive of a few pence per litre and it all happened painlessly.

    It is not the know-how that is lacking for carbon capture but the incentive to apply it. GE seem to agree with me and surely they must know. “With IGCC, carbon capture is available today. Gasification-based carbon capture is widely employed in industrial gasification operations worldwide; and is the same as would be employed in an IGCC plant.”



  6. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Jem, you and I appear to be in violent agreement. Like you, I think we need to put aside strict economy when the health of the planet is at stake, or rather that the full costs of business as usual should be incorporated in the price of business as usual, at which point coal power without sequestration will stop looking so cheap.

    That said, turning around the enormous existing coal infrastructure will definitely take some time. Current IGCC capacity is 520 MW globally, less than one half of one tenth of one percent of global generation capacity. And even to get that tiny amount effectively sequestered, we’d need to build a pipe to carry the gas to a sequestration site and the infrastructure to compress the gas and pump it down. To say that it’s available today is not quite right.

    Furthermore, experience with existing IGCC plants show that it’s tricky and expensive technology that may not be able to compete against more economical low emissions alternatives like wind. The two plants in operation are demonstration models that couldn’t operate without huge subsidies themselves. A third plant had technical difficulties and isn’t operating at all.

    If we slap a price on carbon high enough to make carbon sequestration viable, it will happen as quickly as it can. And in the meantime, things that are either even more economical or quicker to implement can reduce carbon emissions before. We need to ensure that we enable those things to happen too.

    Best, Adriana

  7. Jem Cooper writes:

    A price on carbon will drive all your favourite options. The trouble is it needs to be a high one to drive all the options that are needed, but even a high price is certainly affordable. UK emissions in 2008 were 581 million tonnes of CO2. UK GNP was $2.22 trillion. Even if capturing or preventing the emissions cost $75/tonne, that is still less than 2% of GNP (less than a year of typical growth).

    I have been thinking a little more about the problem of persuading the population to abandon the internal combustion engine. It would be great if the range, performance, battery life and initial cost of electric cars improved to the point where we all bought them, but that might be like waiting for fusion power.

    I for one would not voluntarily abandon my car even if gasoline price rose to £5/litre, although I might get a more economical one. I doubt if there is space on the planet to grow enough crops for biofuel for everyone and anyway it would raise all sorts of issues about habitat destruction, displacing food crops for the poor etc.

    But carbon capture from the atmosphere, as you suggest, will become economic at much lower carbon dioxide prices than those associated with £5/litre gasoline. For example ocean quicklime addition would work at 50p/litre, see my March 28th 2009 comment at


    and there may well be similar land based approaches that are even cheaper. One advantage of the ocean approach was to capture the carbon mainly as bicarbonate rather than carbonate, which only grabs half as much carbon per quicklime molecule. But the 50p number is for capture of only 0.68 moles of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per mole of quicklime not the 1.77 moles per mole expected if solid calcium carbonate does not precipitate during ocean addition.

    The other advantage of ocean addition (and there are plenty of environmental disadvantages) is that no equipment is required to contact the quicklime with the atmosphere. This reduces capital cost but I have not attempted to calculate by how much.

    If I were doing it on land I think I might plump for potassium hydroxide rather than quicklime because potassium carbonate and bicarbonate are very soluble in water. I guess the potassium carbonate could be electrolysed to release carbon dioxide and regenerate the hydroxide thus avoiding the high temperature solid calcination step needed with quicklime.

    Come to think of it you could probably scrub the exhaust gas on the vehicle with potassium hydroxide solution and then just exchange spent potassium carbonate solution for fresh potassium hydroxide solution when filling up with gasoline. Alternatively there could be bulk storage for fresh alkali and spent bicarbonate liquor at home and tankers would periodically refill the former and collect the latter to go for processing.

    The weight and volume of the solution might be an issue. I estimate minimum weight of absorbent as 11 kg per litre of fuel burnt but a range of 100 miles would probably be fine if changeover was quick and easy.

    It is not crucial that the vehicle carries enough hydroxide solution for a long journey because most trips are only a few miles and these account for a large proportion of the emissions. But it is important that the vehicle can occasionally make these long trips without delays for battery recharging. On a long journey it would be possible either to make several brief stops to exchange spent liquor for fresh or to simply exhaust the absorption capacity and allow carbon dioxide to escape to atmosphere.

    Whatever the process, my plan to make fuel producers pay for the capture of an increasing proportion of the carbon dioxide formed from their products would provide the financial incentive to make it happen.

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