On Linda McQuaig’s comments, Carbon budgets, and keeping oil sands “in the ground”

NDP candidate Linda McQuaig has been taking a lot of flack in the last couple days for a quotation on CBC’s Power and Politics where she suggested that “a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground.” To justify her statement she has directed critics to some recent scientific literature as well as the outputs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a well-respected international organization. The IPCC has stated that in order to meet their mandate (more on that below) the full extent of the oil sands cannot be exploited and Ms. McQuaig has correctly cited the IPCC. The problem is that a number of conclusions derived from the IPCC reports move away from the scientific and into the socio-economic and the political. In doing so they ignore many of the complexities of the topic. In particular, a number of activists have been claiming that 85% of the oil sands must remain in the ground as unburnable. As I will demonstrate below, this claim is not a scientific fact, but rather a political one. The rest of this post will hopefully provide a bit of clarity on this topic and maybe help eliminate some of the painful nattering we have heard so far.

Let’s start at with a bit of background. As I discussed in a previous post (on RCP8.5 and “the Business as Usual” Scenario – Different beasts not to be confused), the IPCC derived a number of potential scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to help model a future earth based on how we, as a planet, develop in the next several decades. As part of the modelling exercise the IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change (WGIII) took the step of trying to establish what level of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions would be likely to result in exceeding the global 2oC goal in the 21st Century. For those of you familiar with my writings you will remember that I wrote a previous post describing the 2oC goal titled What is so Special about 2 degrees C in the Climate Change Debate? where I pointed out that the IPCC’s goal of trying to keep climate change below 2oC is a relatively arbitrary one with little actual scientific foundation. That being said 2oC is the number that the IPCC was tasked to consider and they are nothing if not consistent in that respect.

To return to the point, the IPCC ran the RCPs and came up with a big table (Table SPM.1) that provided a range of carbon dioxide concentrations and resultant likelihoods that they would result in our exceeding the 2oC goal. Now to be clear, the RCPs represent complex models that include conditions of population, levels of development, rates of deforestation etc… in addition to carbon dioxide emission characteristics. As a consequence, predicted carbon dioxide concentrations have pretty wide ranges and in some RCPs a lower carbon dioxide range will result in a larger temperature change due to features completely unrelated to carbon dioxide concentration (typically having to do with deforestation etc…). Out of this massive jumble of numbers the IPCC managed to come up with a nice round number: 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2). If you are like me then you are inherently suspicious of any complex modelling exercise that generates a nice big round number, but that is a story for another day.

The 1000 Gt CO2 value represents the amount of carbon dioxide the IPCC scientists felt we could afford to put into the atmosphere while still retaining a high likelihood (over 75%) of not overshooting the 2oC goal. This 1000 Gt CO2 target thus represents our planetary “carbon budget”. Since the IPCC report came out a number of authors have worked further on the topic and one of the more reasonable estimates of our “remaining emissions quotas” (also called our carbon diet) was presented in the journal Nature Geosciences in a paper titled “Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets”. The problem with the IPCC carbon budget is that, as suggested, it is a bit of a fudge. As discussed, the 1000 Gt CO2 carbon budget appears to be very much a conservative estimate and the 2oC goal might be too conservative as well. More problematically, from a science perspective the IPCC models are well-known to run hot, that is they use climate sensitivity estimates that are relatively high. For details on the topic of climate sensitivity see my post: Why I think Climate Sensitivity is Essential for Developing Effective Climate Change Policy. Suffice it to say that the IPCC was limited in the literature it could use (it could only use literature published before a fixed date) and since the most recent IPCC report came out the consensus estimate for climate sensitivity has decreased markedly. For those of you unwilling to read my earlier piece essentially this means that it may take more carbon dioxide than originally envisioned to generate a commensurate temperature increase. What this means is that theoretically our carbon budget could be closer to 1900 Gt CO2than 1000 Gt CO2. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t need to be put on a carbon diet, I just mean that we may be able to ingest more calories (emit more carbon) on the new diet than was previously believed under the old diet.

Now since it is generally accepted in the climate field that we need to stay within our carbon budget (whether the higher or lower figure) the next question we need answered is what does that mean in a global sense with respect to our fossil fuel reserves? Well coincidental to the work of the IPCC, the International Energy Agency (IEA) produced a World Energy Outlook in 2012. The IEA World Energy Outlook provides a best scientific projection of energy trends through to 2035 and includes a detailed assessment of global energy reserves. Based on the numbers in the IEA report, the current global fossil fuel reserves, if all burned, would represent approximately 2860 Gt CO2. So if we are to meet the IPCC goal of 1000 Gt CO2,approximately 1860 Gt CO2 of our fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground unburned. At this point I could stop, but this is where the debate really gets interesting.

Having established that some large percentage of our fossil fuel reserves must remain unburnable to meet our (admittedly conservative) IPCC carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2 the question unaddressed is how do we allocate those 1000 Gt CO2? This is where the politics comes into play. Ever since the IPCC report came out different groups of activists and politicians have argued about topics such as whether we should stop using coal (due to its high CO2 content to energy density) and move to natural gas and whether developed nations should be allocated less of the remaining carbon budget because developed countries had already contributed to existing levels. Most of the battles in the upcoming conference in Paris will center on these topics. In preparation for Paris a number of academics have got into the mix. The first serious attempt to describe the carbon diet necessary to stay within our carbon budget came out in 2009 (before the most recent IPCC report) in the journal Nature: in a paper titled Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C authored by Meinshausen (et al.) Not so coincidentally (want to guess who was on the IPCC authors list) this article written several years before the most recent IPCC report was released also came up with a proposed carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2. The paper pointed out that the vast majority of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves consist of coal, which most policy folks accept must be quickly moved out of our primary energy mix.  Meinshausen et al. concluded that less than half of the proven, economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves could be emitted to reach a carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2.

Since 2009 more research papers have been published and the paper currently all the rage in the environmental community is actually a “Letter” (essentially a short paper) that was published in January, also in Nature, titled “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C” and authored by McGlade and Ekins. The McGlade and Ekins paper presents a detailed carbon diet to keep global warming less than 2oC. The authors, two professors from the University College of London, Institute for Sustainable Resources, have gone several steps further than Meinhausen et al. by looking at an “economically-optimal” solution for the distribution of the carbon budget. In doing so they discount unconventional fuels (like oil sands) and show strong preference for existing producers. Under their model 85% of the oil sands become unburnable and only 60% of the Middle Eastern Oil becomes unburnable. So to be entirely clear here for any reporters reading this article: 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. So when an activist says that the 85% number is from the IPCC, the correct response is (in keeping with the origin of the two authors): “bullocks”.

As a Canadian, I look at this paper with a good deal of skepticism. As discussed earlier, I believe that our carbon budget to avoid 2oC is likely closer to 1500 Gt CO2 than 1000 Gt CO2. In this I am not alone as I get that number from the Nature Geosciences paper (a peer-reviewed piece by non-conflicted scientists). I also don’t necessarily believe that 2oC is a reasonable number because the current literature doesn’t appear to support the 2oC goal (please read my older post on the topic). But even if I did accept the 1000 Gt CO2 budget I would not accept the carbon diet presented by McGlade and Ekins. Instead, I would look to identify how much of the budget is available to Canada and ensure that 100% of that budget was made up using Canadian oil. I know that the concept of “Ethical Oil” has become something of a hot potato because of issues surrounding the origins of the term, but I do believe in the concept behind the term. I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing Medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to build another palace. I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians, in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.

So to answer the critical questions about this entire piece:

1) Was Linda McQuaig correct that some of our oil sands will need to be left in the ground to meet our climate change commitments? Yes, if we are to meet our goal of limiting our greenhouse gas emissions then there are some coal and oil sand resources that will have to stay in the ground.

2) Is that number 85% of the resource as suggested by some activists and trumpeted on television and radio? Absolutely not. The amount left in the ground should be based on the economics of the resource and a desire to optimize Canadian content and minimize our use of non-ethical fossil fuel sources.

3) Do I know what percentage of our oil sands will have to stay in the ground to meet our climate change commitments? No I do not. I also don’t know how much of our oil sands resource can be extracted in an environmentally sound manner. What I do know is that Canadian oil helps support Canadian jobs, Canadian institutions and provides the funds to pay for our education and medical systems while subsidizing transfer payments. As such, in my mind, it is preferable to oil from virtually every other source world-wide for Canadian use.

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4 Responses to On Linda McQuaig’s comments, Carbon budgets, and keeping oil sands “in the ground”

  1. I think I may have mentioned that Canadian extra heavy (the 7 to 8 degree API “bitumen” is nearly identical to Venezuelan Orinoco Belt crude. Given the Venezuelan regime's human rights abuses it sure makes sense to reduce USA imports from Venezuela by giving Canadian crude as easy an outlet as possible. This somehow is contrary to president Obama's foreign policy.

    I do encourage Canadian authorities to slow down developments to allow modern high energy methods to be perfected and applied in the Canadian oil fields. Those methods are evolving slowly but in 5 to 10 years they'll be highly competitive.

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  2. By the way, I meant high efficiency energy. I was thinking of new oil treating technology which reduces energy consumption, adding small amounts of butane to the steam (which allows much lower steam consumption), better reservoir definition to avoid steaming marginal zones, etc.

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  3. Pingback: A case against the empty symbolism of the 1.5C climate change goal | A Chemist in Langley

  4. Andre Sobolewski says:

    I enjoy your argument and largely agree with it. I think McGlade & Ekins provide a useful starting point rather than the conclusion of a long, difficult discussion. In fact, they conclude by writing that “large portions of the reserve base and an even greater proportion of the resource base…”, rather than spelling out exact percentages or amounts of reserves/resources which should remain unearthed. To me, this suggests that they understand their numbers are not yet fixed.

    Insofar as Oilsands developments, I agree that improved extraction methods are in the works, but I am far more concerned about the unacknowledged giant experiment that constitutes their reclamation plans. For example, Kearl (where I had two contracts and visits) has a 30 hectare lease where a 5-10 m deep peat layer overlies the bitumen. How the mine plans to reclaim this area after the peat has been stripped 40 years earlier is a wild guess, an experiment no one has ever performed. How would you recreate the previous subsurface hydrologic characteristics that governed much of the surface ecology? More generally, reclaiming 180,000 hectare of disturbed land from Oilsands leases is a huge undertaking with a very uncertain outcome.

    All this to say that I enjoy the thoughts provoked by your writing!

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