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Tar Secrets Chart: Pssst, Mr Harper, don't let Obama see this ...

Our "Tar Secrets" series delivers you essential climate facts missing from government and tar sands marketing spin.

In a nutshell

What the tar sands industry says: the climate pollution from continued rapid expansion of the tar sands will be small compared to US coal-fired power plants. Even Canadian government marketing materials aimed at Americans feature this story line.

What they don't tell you: the total climate impact of the tar sands will soon rival that from US coal if the tar sands industry carries through on their expansion plans.

In perspective: US-mined coal has put more climate pollution into our atmosphere than any other source on the planet. Last year its total climate impact exceeded all the fossil fuels burned in Central and South America. It was more than were burned in all of Africa, India or the Middle East.

The issue: Should we re-create a climate disaster of that scale with the tar sands?

At a glance

My chart below lets you quickly compare the full climate impact -- from production through burning -- from three large fossil carbon deposits:

  1. Coal mined in the USA
  2. Coal mined in Canada
  3. Bitumen extracted from Alberta's tar sands



  • The total climate impact from Alberta's tar sands has surged to five times its 1990 level.
  • In contrast, US and Canadian coal have the same climate impact today as they did in 1990.
  • In 1990, the tar sands total climate impact was 4% of US-mined coal.
  • Now it is nearly 20% of US-mined coal and 25% of US coal-fired power ... and gaining rapidly.
  • Carbon extraction from the tar sands tripled since 2000 -- equivalent to tripling Canada's coal mining.
  • The tar sands industry has announced plans to quadruple their carbon extraction capacity by 2025. This is based on the "unconstrained" scenario in a recent Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) study. (see "geeky details" at bottom for discussion)
  • If the industry carries through on their plans, the total climate impact of the tar sands would rival that from all the coal-fired power plants in the USA today.

The full story

The Alberta tar sands industry wants to rapidly increase the amount of fossil carbon they extract and sell.

Climate activists however argue that a safe climate future requires that we reduce the extraction of fossil carbon, not rapidly increase it. They point to government studies showing that Alberta's tar sands deposit produces one of the world's most climate-polluting sources of oil and therefore we should stop increasing the amount produced.

Industry spin: tar sands GHG small compared to US coal

In response, the Alberta tar sands industry regularly argues that their climate impact is small by comparing it to that of the gigantic USA coal industry.

For example the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) claims:

"Total oil sands GHG emissions in 2011 were 55 megatonnes. This is equivalent to 4.3% of the emissions from the U.S. coal-fired power-generation sector in 2011." -- CAPP

The federal government repeats this meme:

"Regardless of the source, GHG emissions are a shared global challenge. Coal-fired power plants make up about a quarter of U.S. GHG emissions and in 2010, these emissions were nearly 40 times greater than emissions from the oil sands." -- Government of Canada brochure

These statements are marketing spin that compare "apples to oranges." They won't help you understand the relative climate impact of the two carbon sources because they compare the impact of extracting tar sands carbon to the impact of burning US coal carbon.

Imagine a tobacco company claiming that the health impacts of making their cigarettes are vastly smaller than the health impacts of smoking another company's cigars.

Such "apples to oranges" comparisons make it impossible for you to determine the relative impacts of the two sources. But maybe that is the point. 

Counter-spin: US coal GHG small compared to tar sands

To highlight how misleading it is to compare extraction to burning, consider that the USA coal industry could flip the tables and say this:

"GHG emissions from Alberta's tar sands oil were six times greater than emissions from the entire USA coal industry."

More in Climate Snapshot

"Carbon tsunami" lead by Enbridge Northern Gateway takes aim at BC

A flood of mega-carbon projects threaten to quickly turn British Columbia into one of the world's dirtiest economies.

Car Carbon series: cool new animation, plus the jaw-dropping impact it left out

What weighs sixteen billion pounds yet hides in plain sight?
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