Ethical oil, ethical government. What does ‘ethical’ mean and what does this have to do with ocean acidification?

Posted by on April 3, 2012
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[Two hours after I posted this, I saw  an article in the New Scientist.  If anyone doubts that Canada’s government has a problem with environmental science, go read this article.]

I was worried about the current Canadian meaning of ‘ethical’ before I left the country on a 10-day trip to universities in the south-eastern US.  I missed the Harper government’s budget, and have been playing catch-up in the days since I got home.  Before my trip, I was concerned at the continuing erosion of civil liberties evident in government pronouncements suggesting that those who opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline were traitors or terrorists, in the government’s muzzling of its own climate scientists, and in the government’s evident irritation when Robert Redford dared to come here and tell us tar sands oil was dirty.  I was also amused at the frantic spinning evident in the term ‘ethical oil’.

While I was away, I learned, in conversations with marine scientists, that ocean acidification was every bit as serious for the productive capacity of the oceans as I had begun to suspect from my own reading of the technical literature.  While CO2 is just one of several greenhouse gases, the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, 33% of which dissolves into the ocean, is alone responsible for the most rapid and potentially most extreme change in ocean pH for at least the last 350 million years.  This shift in pH is already having measurable effects on a variety of marine creatures – effects on reproduction, on larval development, on metabolism, and on calcification used by many to produce their skeletons.  The extraction of tar sands oil is much more costly in CO2 emitted than conventional oil, not to mention its cost in contaminated water permanently sequestered in giant tailings lakes, or its other effects on the environment.

Now back home, I am learning that the budget included severe cuts to Environment Canada, and science more generally, but put extra money into Revenue Canada expressly for funding audits of environmental NGOs with charitable status to ensure they abide by the rules.  Apparently, it is acceptable for multinational oil companies to use overseas funds to make the case for ethical oil, but environmental NGOs, or indeed any groups that speak out against the tar sands enterprise, must mind their P’s and Q’s, and remember that our Prime Minister has ensured that Revenue Canada has the funds to go fishing for problems in their tax returns.

The cuts to science just continue this government’s policy of ensuring that it will not have to listen to scientifically informed advice on the environment that it does not want to hear. (It is surely not a coincidence that among the cuts, Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is being disbanded – after all, that group published a report last year pointing out that climate change was going to cost Canada money; from $5 billion a year by 2020 to $21 – $43 billion a year by 2050.  This government does not want to hear any more of that sort of reasoned analysis.)

So, faced with this mess, I find myself obligated to put some facts on paper, line them up in neat rows, and try to explain why our government’s policies are flawed for the environment and flawed for us.  They are taking us down a path that will leave us poorer in the long run.

The 2011 Crude Oil Forecast by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) reports that in 2010, Canada produced a total of 2.8 million barrels of oil per day.  Tar sands production represented 1.5 million barrels per day, or 54% of this total.  CAPP projects that tar sands production will grow to 3.7 million barrels per day in 2025, representing 79% of a projected total of 4.7 million barrels per day.  Most of this oil is, and will continue to be exported.  StatsCan data show that in 2010, 63% of crude oil produced in Canada was exported, chiefly to the US, but that imports into eastern Canada lowered the net export amount to 35%.  In other words, Canada’s current net exports are over a third of the oil it produces.  Canada is expected to nearly double production in the next 15 years, by which time it will be exporting effectively 60% of all production.  While it is unsurprising that CAPP sees this projected increase in production as a good thing, it is fair to ask whether it is in the best interest of Canada to ramp up production so rapidly given that the increase is coming entirely from tar sands oil, the most environmentally damaging source.

The CAPP forecast discusses the need for pipelines from the Athabasca region, and a separate CAPP document (Market access through Canada’s west coast, 2011) makes the case for pipeline access to the west coast.  Both documents make clear that new pipelines are necessary to permit the projected expansion of production.  The Market access document is even frank enough to state that pipelines to the west coast will be useful given that producers will continue to be “very exposed to the vagaries of U.S. environmental and climate change policies” if they continue to rely only on routes through the mid-west.  CAPP recognizes there will be opposition to these pipelines based on environmental concerns.

So what does all this have to do with the environmental crisis or the oceans?  I am not forgetting the impacts of tar sands production on water resources, which are substantial now, and will grow as production ramps up.  But for now, I will focus on the production of greenhouse gases (GHG), because these are what are causing those profound changes to the world’s oceans.

In August 2011, CAPP produced a cheerful defense of the tar sands industry titled, CAPP on Climate.  Here they begin by claiming that world demand for energy will increase by 47% by 2035, thus justifying the need to harvest the tar sands as rapidly as possible.  They spend page 2 reporting how important Canada is as an energy producer, and make the standard economic argument that we cannot afford not to continue to grow this industry.  But who is ‘we’ in this argument?  Canada is a net exporter of hydrocarbons, even without the tar sands production, and does not need to ramp up production to fuel its own economy.  The tar sands will become progressively more valuable if left in the ground, and will likely always have value because the chemicals industry will need hydrocarbons long after we stop burning fossil fuels.  If anything, Canada needs to bolster its manufacturing sector, and increase the opportunities for its well-educated workforce in the production of knowledge-based, high value-added products and services.  Canada definitely does not need to reduce itself to a country of peasants who sell off their raw materials to foreigners as a way of making a living.  No, Canada is not the ‘we’ in CAPP’s argument – the ‘we’ is the multinational oil corporations and their shareholders including some Canadians.

Putting aside the professed ‘need’ to ramp up tar sands production, let’s look at the environmental costs of this industry.  Canada ranks sixth or seventh in the world in total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and is currently third in emissions per capita, just behind the U.S. and Australia.  Canada also had the sixth largest percent growth in emissions since 1990, has pulled out of Kyoto, and shows little sign of trying to rein in its releases of GHGs.  CAPP makes much of the fact that Canada’s total emissions are only 2% of the world total, and that tar sands production contributes only 6.5% of Canadian emissions.  Our government similarly has pointed to the tiny portion of the global emissions that is due to our tar sands industry, but I think we need to look at things another way.

Canada’s emissions have been growing, except for a brief pause during the recent financial downturn, and they have been growing largely because of increased fossil fuel extraction and use.  We are supposed to be trying to reduce emissions.  The projected increase in tar sands production to 2025, a 246% increase over that in 2010, will more than double the emissions due to tar sands activity, effectively adding at least 50 million tonnes of CO2 released per year.  These are emissions that Canada does not need to make, because we do not need to produce this oil at this time.  When is Canada going to start wrestling with its GHG emissions, and actually bring them down?  Would it not be wise to tackle ‘unnecessary’ emissions, such as those generated from ramping up production of oil we do not need?

While Canada’s emissions are small in total, our per capita emissions are irresponsibly large, and growing.  There are only 34 million of us, and individually or together, we will never be able to make an enormous dent on the global releases of GHGs.  But every individual in the world can use that argument as an excuse for not trying to do anything.  Canadians have an easy way to improve our per capita performance, and reduce overall concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  We can curtail the enthusiasm of our government for further expansion of tar sands production.  It’s almost a no-brainer, which may be why the government seems so intent on stifling opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Global climate change becomes more serious every day.  The costs we will incur are going to grow substantially unless we bring GHGs under control.  Ocean acidification alone threatens the base of oceanic food chains, those phytoplankton which together carry out 45% of all the photosynthesis on the planet.  Whether we recognize it or not, we depend upon photosynthesis directly for some, and indirectly for all the rest of our food, and photosynthesis also puts oxygen back into the atmosphere – another essential service by the natural world.  Given that we are also rapidly deforesting the land, would it not be wise to protect photosynthesis in the ocean?  There really is a connection between tar sands, pipelines, the environment and ocean acidification.  It is there whether or not our government wishes to believe so.  It is right for Canadians to have a chance to comment on what we want to do with ‘our’ resources, and ‘our’ environment, and ‘our’ quality of life.  It is right for Canadians to decide if we want to do our part for the planet.  Our government needs to learn to listen, and to remember that it serves us, not the other way around, and we Canadians need to start weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

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