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Tar Sands

Tar sands: The story behind the headlines

Alan Miller's picture

The complexity of climate change issue is a challenge for most mainstream media, which increasingly seek the shortest possible sound bite to interest an audience with a very limited attention span. Yet a recent example illustrates the importance of looking past the headlines to understand the importance and true meaning of scientific announcements.  The article featured the optimistic headline: “New study finds oil sands fuels would cause imperceptible temperature rise.” 

This declaration understandably attracted considerable attention from climate policy-watchers because Canadian oil sands (also commonly referred to as “tar sands” reflecting the heavy, molasses like quality of the substance) are the resource proposed for transmission via the controversial Keystone XL pipeline recently denied a permit by the Obama Administration. (Oil sands deposits have also been found in Russia, Venezuela and Kazakhstan, but a majority of identified reserves and virtually all commercial production are in Canada.)  

Some advocates for developing the oil sands see their use as essentially a national energy security issue, maintaining the pipeline is an important step forward toward fulfilling the long cherished dream of US energy independence, not to mention the potential to reduce or at least stabilize gasoline prices: ``Is US Energy Independence Finally Within Reach”, National Public Radio, March 7, 2012.

To be sure, the promise of lower gasoline prices and energy security are strong considerations. But an ongoing debate continues as to whether or not this economically attractive resource can be extracted, refined, and distributed without unacceptable environmental harm. This is why an otherwise academic analysis by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria in British Columbia proved newsworthy. They calculated the global temperature rise that would result from the carbon dioxide released by burning currently proven reserves of Canadian oil sands: Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver, “The Alberta oil sand and climate,” Nature Climate Change, Feb. 19, 2012.