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Do the oilsands threaten our safe climate? Hansen's "game over" vs Oliver's "minuscule amount"

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STAGE TWO: Oliver's "minuscule amount"

Minister Oliver's repeated storyline is that the oilsands are just "one one-thousandth"of the problem, and thus is too small to have any dangerous effect on the climate.

So let's add a "Joe Oliver Circle" representing 1/1000th of the remaining global CO2 budget to my chart.


Do you see it? It is that single black pixel in the center.

I'm certain that if the oilsands really represented so little of the climate problem nobody would be worrying about them. But the simple climate math shows this isn't the case.

One one-thousandth of the world's remaining safe-CO2 budget is 0.47 GtCO2. Extracting and burning oilsands products will create more CO2 than that in the next several months, not over many decades.

Unless Joe Oliver plans to shut down the industry next year, the oilsands will become much more than 1/1000th of the climate problem.

STAGE THREE: Hansen's "game over" amount

Hansen says that all the oilsands carbon that is both economically viable and legal to extract will get burned eventually. He then calculates that under current policies around half the resource will become economically viable and legal to extract.

To finish my chart I'll add the quantities that Hansen talks about:


Hmmm, Hansen's circles of concern are a bit larger than Oliver's.

The outer dark red circle is the currently known size of the Alberta tar sand deposit. The inner bright red circles show the "economically viable" slices Hansen warns about.

"Currently economic" slice = 20% of budget

The smaller red circle represents oilsands that are currently economic to exploit. Neither Canada nor Alberta has laws that would force any these "economically viable" oilsands to be kept in the ground forever.

Under current policies these will be extracted and burned creating climate pollution equal to a fifth of the world's remaining safe-CO2 budget (95 GtCO2).

"Will become economic" slice = 111% of budget

Hansen points out that the "economically viable" amount is likely to increase dramatically over time. The amount that becomes profitable increases as extraction technology advances, oil prices rise and more of the resource is identified.

Hansen estimates that under current policies around 50% of the current oilsands resource will become economic. There are no laws that will prevent this from happening, and none are being discussed by the governments of Canada or Alberta.

Hansen's central point is that under existing laws all this carbon will be extracted and burned. Doing so will release climate pollution equal to 111% of the entire world's remaining safe-CO2 budget.

This is more than all the oil burned by humanity so far.  

All of this oilsands carbon won't be extracted by 2050 but, as Hansen says, the earth's climate reacts to the total quantity of CO2 we end up releasing, not so much the timing of that release. It is the total amount coming out of the oilsands plus all other fossil fuel sources over many decades that will determine the safety of our climate system and the acidification damage to our oceans.

Oilsands just one of thousands

The Alberta oilsands are currently the source of roughly one percent of the world's fossil fuels and CO2, and growing fast. They are also one of the most climate-polluting sources per unit of energy.

There are also vast reserves of much cleaner conventional sources of oil and natural gas being extracted around the world. When you add the oilsands budget-busting future CO2 on top of the potential CO2 from conventional oil and gas, it is clear that they make a climate disaster inescapable.

This is what Dr. Hansen means when he says:

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