Vancouver Sun's ethical oil orgy
Each month I read a hundred climate articles and the summaries of a thousand more. So I see a lot of biased climate reporting. Even so, a recent Vancouver Sun business article by Barbara Yaffe was such a one-sided oil orgy that it shocked even me.
In honour of such truly dreadful climate reporting, I’m going to first provide some balance on the blatant biases and then give it my inaugural “Oil Orgy” award. We deserve all the hell and high water we get if we allow pro-pollution, industry-spin articles like Yaffe’s to slip by unchallenged.
In a nutshell
Yaffe appears to copy talking points directly from Big Tar’s advertising and presents those as the full, balanced, did-my-homework story of oilsands pollution. She then goes on to insist we allow Big Tar to radically expand carbon pollution because the oilsands are:
- a tiny fraction of one percent of the climate problem
- a tiny fraction of coal-burning carbon in the U.S.
- getting cleaner per barrel
- unfairly tagged as a “carbon bomb”
Here’s what Yaffe doesn’t tell her readers:
- She leaves out 85 per cent of current oilsands carbon. The full climate impact is over 280 million tonnes of CO2. That is greater than fossil-fuel burning in 162 nations and equals 8.5 tonnes per Canadian.
- She leaves out all data on the exploding rate of carbon extraction. Yaffe never mentions that Big Tar plans to double carbon pollution this decade or to hit a billion tonnes of climate pollution within two decades. That will be double the size of all fossil-fuel-burning emissions in Canada today. Hint: that is the exploding part of the “carbon bomb”.
- She leaves out all data on the “game over” size of the oilsands carbon bomb. Yaffe doesn’t mention the fact that there is six times more economically recoverable carbon in the oilsands than in all of Canada’s coal reserves. Or that NASA’s James Hansen puts the carbon extraction potential of oilsands as equal to all coal burning in all of human history so far. WMD.
- She leaves out all data showing oilsands getting dirtier. While she thinks it is important to tell you that they are trying to get cleaner, she apparently decides you don’t need to know that the industry’s own data shows barrels are actually getting much dirtier.
- She leaves out basic integrity when comparing to U.S. coal burning. Yaffe parrots the ridiculous statistic of Big Tar that oilsands emissions are only 3.5 per cent of U.S. coal-burning emissions. It is ridiculous because it compares a portion of oilsands-production emissions to the burning emissions of U.S. coal. If you flip that around, this equally absurd statement becomes true: The oilsands emissions are greater than USA coal emissions.
As my article below spells out, even if you compare the oilsands to humanity’s biggest source of climate pollution of all time – U.S. coal burning – the oilsands still come out looking like an incredibly reckless and dangerous carbon bomb.
The public expects biased industry spin from Big Tar advertisements. But they expect balance and integrity in news reporting from media like the Vancouver Sun, whose reputation rests on delivering it.
The gory details
Below I delve into the details, data, charts and links for eight of Yaffe’s most tarnished assertions. At the end, I hand out my inaugural “Oil Orgy” award for truly dreadful climate reporting.
Yaffe #1: “Some facts: The oilsands account for of 0.1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.”
The pretty marketing brochure from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says: "Oil sands account for ... 0.1% (1/1000th) of global GHG emissions." I guess at the Vancouver Sun, getting all your “facts” by copying-and-pasting from advertisements is considered doing your “homework” and providing your readers with “balance”. Good to know. Not so good for their business section’s reputation though.
Now the reason the industry crafted this statement and repeats it endlessly is because they want you to think that developing the oilsands is an itty-bitty, teensy-weensy, part of the climate problem. Say 0.1 per cent of it. The sub-text is that developing their product will have a tiny impact so back off and let them do what they want.
Of course the actual climate impact from the oilsands is many times larger today and heading for “carbon-bomb,” “game-over” horrific. Here’s why. The oil industry breaks the climate damage of oil into two main parts:
- The smaller first part is emissions from producing the oil.
- The larger second part is emissions from burning the oil.
That pay-no-attention-to-tiny-0.1-per-cent-us “fact” only includes some of the production emissions. Somehow they forgot to tell you about all emissions from producing their product outside Canada. Oh yeah, and they also ignored all emissions from burning their product. Taken together, 85 per cent of the full climate impact of the oilsands is ignored by CAPP, and therefore by industry ad stenographer Yaffe as well.
Imagine if that other Big Tar – Big Tobacco – tried to ignore the smoke from burning tobacco when talking about the health impacts of their product. Would the Vancouver Sun allow a reporter to totally ignore tobacco smoke when covering the health effects of a new line of higher tar cigarettes? Of course not.
It is equally absurd to ignore the damaging second-hand smoke when covering the climate impacts of the tar sands product. The full climate impact of vaporizing Alberta’s oilsands carbon for profit exceeded 280 million tonnes of CO2 in 2009. How does that compare to the climate impact of others?
- At a global level this is 3 per cent of CO2 from all oil, and 1 per cent of CO2 from all fossil fuels.
- At a national level it is greater than emissions from 162 national economies and surpasses the combined emissions of 86 countries.
- At the per-capita level it is 8.5 tonnes of CO2 per Canadian per year, or 65 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) per Albertan. That is a very tar-obese nation. For perspective, Europeans only emit 8.2 tCO2 for their entire economy.
Belittling damage of this magnitude from a single source as oh-well or I’ve-seen-worse is flat out dangerous to our future. And yet dangerous as these under-reported emissions are, they are just a single snapshot in time. To understand the real threat from the tar sands, imagine today’s huge climate impact as a single frame from a video of a bomb as it starts exploding. Indeed, the primary reason our oilsands are widely feared as a “carbon bomb” is exactly because their climate impacts are exploding.
Yaffe #2: “The public has been left to believe the oilsands are a ‘carbon bomb.’"
Yaffe makes clear that she thinks the “carbon bomb” label is without merit and that citizens concerned about the exploding climate impacts from the oilsands have “greatly exaggerated” the dangers. “Overheated.” Lack of “balance.” “Need to do their homework.” Finger wagging, school marm kinda thing.
While the public increasingly understands why the oilsands are a “carbon bomb”, the relevant facts apparently aren’t available in CAPP advertisements. Is it a coincidence they aren’t in Yaffe’s article either?
Here they are. You decide...
Rapid explosion: At a time when Canada and the world must reduce climate impacts by more than 10 per cent a decade, the oilsands are planning to increase their climate impact 10 per cent every year. The Alberta government says it will allow 6,000,000 barrels a day of Crown-owned carbon to be extracted by 2035. The oilsands' climate impact will have then exploded to 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 a year – twice the climate pollution caused by all fossil fuel burning in Canada today. That’s the exploding part; now for the bomb.
Climate bomb: Our ancient tar sand deposits have 170 billion barrels of oil that are economically recoverable with current technology. Doing so would dump 88 billion tonnes of CO2. For perspective, that is six times the climate damage of burning all of the economically recoverable coal reserves in Canada.
If you care about a safe climate, it gets much worse. To start with, we already have the technology to extract twice that much oilsands carbon. Next, America’s premier climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen says that exploiting just half the known oilsands resource would release CO2 equal to all of humanity’s coal burning so far. Here is Hansen’s chart with my tar sands highlighting:
Not to be outdone, the head of Shell Canada estimated our oilsands could eventually release double the climate damage that Hansen estimates. But hey, what does the head of an oil company know about this stuff?
So, does all this sound like only 0.1 per cent of the problem to you? If a head-long rush in one corner of Alberta to vaporize a carbon deposit this chart-topping huge isn’t a “carbon bomb” – a radical weapon of mass destruction – I don’t know what qualifies.
Yaffe #3: “Oil companies in Alberta are working to lower the intensity of oilsands emissions.”
Yeah, and I’m working to become younger and a lot better looking. But unfortunately I’m failing miserably and so are the oilsands companies – as Yaffe would know very well if she did her homework.
As everyone by now understands, oilsands crude is much dirtier to produce than most other sources of oil. The U.S. EPA says production emissions for oilsands are “82 per cent greater” than for the average crude refined in the U.S. The European Union is about to ban oilsands oil because their data shows the total climate impact is 22 per cent greater than conventional oil.
If Europe wanted to ban a brand of cigarettes that were 22 per cent more dangerous for their citizens, would Canada be objecting so strenuously? Would news reporters be packaging tobacco-industry spin as the full balanced story? Only if we were deeply unethical.
Big Tar expansionists, like CAPP, tell us not to worry because the oilsands industry “continues to reduce GHG emissions intensity.” In the real world, however, CAPP’s own numbers show the opposite. Their “Facts on the Oil Sands 2010” booklet brags that they reduced emissions intensity by 39 per cent since 1990. But in the next edition, they very quietly lowered that to just 29 per cent. Here are the two editions:
So even the industry ads Yaffe seems to be quoting for her “facts” also show that oilsands are now 16 per cent dirtier to produce than a few years ago. That’s a lot dirtier, not cleaner. Yaffe never tells her business page readers about this critical issue. Why not?
Want more confirmation? The industry trade journal CanOils reported that for 2009: "Per barrel emissions remain higher than 5 years ago." Their chart showed CO2 production emissions per barrel, for both integrated and in situ, are around 20 per cent dirtier than five years ago.
And while the Government of Canada omitted the oilsands breakdown from this year’s national GHG report, an access to information request uncovered the missing data showing the trend towards dirtier barrels.
The future looks even dirtier. Like conventional oil, the oilsands industry went after the easy stuff first. Now it gets harder. Most of the remaining oilsands deposits are so deep they need to be extracted via “in situ” methods. Pembina reports that in situ extraction will become the dominant method around 2017 and that:
“data comparing in situ and mining emissions consistently comes to the same conclusion — in situ oil sands production creates higher greenhouse gas emissions.”
Note to Vancouver Sun editors: if you are going to talk about the oilsands carbon intensity you have a fundamental obligation to your readers to inform them that industry data shows they are getting much dirtier per barrel in recent years. Dirtier, not cleaner. It’s called basic reporting. People who rely on the Vancouver Sun business news to make their economic decisions might want to take note.
Yaffe #4: “Their emissions in 2009 were equivalent to 3.5 per cent of emissions from the U.S. coal-fired generation sector.”
Again CAPP advertisements agree: "Oil sands' total GHG emissions in 2009 were ... equivalent to 3.5% of 2009 emissions from US coal fired power generation sector."
What Yaffe doesn’t tell you is that Big Tar is only comparing some of their production emissions to U.S. coal burning emissions. To see how silly this is, flip it around to compare producing coal to burning oil and you get this statement: “Alberta’s oilsands produce more emissions than U.S. coal.” Equally true, equally meaningless. Both are intentionally confusing.
Instead, let’s compare burning to burning. Sure enough, the oilsands were 3.5 per cent of USA coal-fired generation – 20 years ago. Today, they have surged to 14 per cent and are gaining rapidly.
Yaffe #5: “Why aren't the activists out attacking America's ‘coal bomb?’"
Seriously? Statements like this pass for journalism at the Vancouver Sun?
U.S. coal burning is indeed one of the biggest and nastiest “carbon bombs” on the planet. It has produced more of the climate-destabilizing CO2 in our atmosphere than any other source.
Fortunately for all of us, it is a carbon bomb being slowly defused. A major reason is because climate-concerned citizens in the U.S. are fighting U.S. coal harder than anything else. Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute tells the story:
“Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent … this is only the beginning.
The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal…”
This Beyond Coal campaign has united climate activists across the nation and helped stop over 150 proposed U.S. coal-fired power plants in the last few years. Here’s a cold-hard-cash number: New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave $50 million of his own money to the Beyond Coal campaign in the US.
Listen to Deutsche Bank: “[U.S.] coal is a dead man walkin’…Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them … And the economics to make it clean don’t work.”
Meanwhile, the carbon intensity of U.S. electricity improved 6.3 per cent since 2005 as the industry switches away from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
In contrast, the oilsands “carbon bomb” is both exploding in scale and increasing its carbon intensity. Here are the trend lines:
- U.S. coal burning decreasing while oilsands burning explodes
- U.S. electricity got 6 per cleaner while oilsands got 16 per cent dirtier
Once again, Yaffe and the Vancouver Sun business editors seem to think their readers just don’t need to understand of any of this.
Yaffe #6: “What's the incentive for governments and oil companies to keep spending billions on environmental innovations when they're slammed at every turn?”
Oh, now I see. All this time I thought Big Tar was spending that money to try to prevent their product from shoving our weather system – and our kids’ hopes – into the gutter for the next few thousand years. You know, working to avoid that whole “crimes against humanity” type of scenario.
Apparently none of that is enough incentive for them to stop being merchants of misery. Instead, if the industry fails to reduce their climate damage, we can blame the heartless environmentalists for refusing to give the oilsand corporations big hugs and a gigantic “We Forgive You” Hallmark card.
Yaffe #7: “Environmentalists lately have been taking centre stage with overheated campaigns against North American pipelines and Alberta's oilsands, leaving the industry and politicians on the sidelines, dismayed.”
Oh, by sidelined “industry and politicians” she must be talking about such helpless bystanders as global Big Oil corporations, Canada’s Prime Minister and Alberta’s Premier? You know, the ones that hold all the levers of power and get to make all the decisions about the oilsands in Canada? The ones with billions in the bank to spend as they please? Hey, didn’t Shell just say it made a record $21 billion dollars in profit so far this year and has $13 billion in cash sitting around?
To be fair, perhaps by “on the sidelines” she means like the Roman emperors were on the sidelines in the coliseum on lion-feeding days. In that context, I can see how climate concerned citizens would indeed be “centre stage.”
Yaffe #8: “The fact is, oil is produced nearly everywhere it’s found.”
The other fact is that producing all the oil we've found in one patch in one corner of Alberta would ensure “game over” for our climate and our kids’ future. Apparently that isn’t enough of a reason to for Vancouver Sun and Barbara Yaffe to provide you and your kids with balanced and responsible news reporting so you can make your own informed decisions.
Enough is enough
I could go on and on with such dreadful quotes. But like the explosive growth of tar sands pollution: enough is enough.
So, in honour of:
- giving your readers only industry ads as supporting numbers
- hiding from your readers almost all the oilsands’ climate impacts today and into the future
- selling your readers apples as if they were oranges
- keeping your readers in the dark about multiple critical trend lines
- deciding that your readers only need to know about stated intentions of Big Tar corporations and not their actual performance
- and advocating for a radical explosion of oilsands climate damage without bothering to explain the serious risks to Canadians
I sadly present Barbara Yaffe and the Vancouver Sun with the first “Oil Orgy” Award for their business article “Protesters decrying oilsands need to do their homework”.
For the record: I emailed Barbara Yaffe twice with information about the climate impacts not covered in her article and questions about a follow-up article that would provide balance to industry spin. I also submitted a commentary article to the Vancouver Sun presenting what Yaffe requested: “homework” by environmentalists on the climate impacts of the oilsands. After several weeks waiting, I've received no replies.
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