Oil boom threatens climate catastrophe

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

If we don’t shut down the Alberta Tar Sands, the world is cooked.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You’ve probably seen the headlines announcing that by 2020 the United States will pass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, and that by 2030 North America will be a net exporter of oil. The International Energy Agency, representing 28 of the world’s richest countries, comes to that conclusion in its annual report, World Energy Outlook 2012. Most of that expansion will come from non-traditional sources — especially shale oil and tar sands.

Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International draws our attention to another of the report’s conclusions, one that hasn’t been widely reported. The IEA notes that with every passing year it is harder to believe that average global warming can be kept below 2°C – the level at which scientists say catastrophic climate change will become avoidable. And it says:

“No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.”

That’s not the opinion of some flaky tree-hugger. It’s the considered judgment of the world’s leading authorities on energy. If we don’t leave at least two-thirds of oil in the soil, the climate will boil.

How is the industry responding to this?

Stockman points out that the Alberta Tar Sands alone has enough projects producing, under construction and approved “to blow well past the climate limits prescribed by the IEA.” What’s more, the oil industry has still more tar sands projects waiting regulatory decisions, “leading to a possible trebling of production capacity over and above the IEA limit.”

In other words, no matter what happens elsewhere, if we don’t shut down the Alberta Tar Sands, the world is cooked.


More from my notebook 


  • Personally, I would prefer a strategy that talks about demand, rather than supply, not least because, if we don’t change demand (mainly cars), the supplies will continue to happen. I consider the efforts to stop tar sands production to be very quixotic/hopeless.

    • I’m curious to know how you would reconcile that post with this recent posting of yours:

      Product-use (“consumption” in the cynical/misanthropic/capitalist
      lexicon) is a by-product of product production and marketing. Every
      time a “green” dwells on “consumption,” the species and the planet lose
      another day.

      Does “supply” (production) drive “demand” (consumption) or is it the other way around?

      • Demand drives production, but capitalists are only willing to produce certain kinds of things under certain conditions, so demand is not the realm of freedom it’s supposed to be. Demand drives _capitalist_ production, which is a form of dictatorship.

        To be less abstract, what I’m saying is that it strikes me as quixotic to target the oil industry without also attacking cars-first transportation, a.k.a. the automotive industry. Remove cars-first, and oil demand plummets. Talk only about oil while staying silent about cars-first transportation, and present trends (including the present level of oil demand) continue.

        • Sorry, I’m not buying it. Production is not driven by demand, but by the necessity of trying to maintain profit levels. Capitalist growth – i.e. increasing production – is, as you have said elsewhere, a “systemic requirement” of the system. This is why capitalism suffers a chronic tendency towards overproduction. They fight this tendency by such devices as marketing and advertising aimed at persuading us to buy more, and creating credit bubbles so that we can buy beyond our means.

          You got it right in the previous post I quoted above when you said “Product-use (‘consumption’ in the cynical/misanthropic/capitalist lexicon) is a by-product of product production and marketing”. If it’s a by-product, it’s not the driving force. Production (and the class that profits from it) drives consumption, not the other way around.

          You have reality turned on its head if you think that we will only stop tar sands production by abandoning our automobiles. We’re not going to change the system of production by altering consumer behaviour.

          • Jeff, how do you imagine the abandonment of automobiles does not radically reduce oil use? What else would possibly burn up that much oil? For that matter, how do you imagine capitalism would survive the loss of cars-first transportation? What could conceivably take its place?

            As for demand, I think we’re just talking past one another. Marketing and capitalist priorities dominate product production, but production only takes place to the extent there’s enough economic demand to “justify” it.

            In any event, my main point is that 75% of oil use in the USA — the world’s largest “consumer” of the stuff — is caused by cars. Talking about oil alone is like telling a lung cancer patient s/he has a really bad cough.

            I personally also think people won’t ever sufficiently support anti-tar sands organizing, unless we simultaneously push for alternatives to cars-first. The built infrastructure for cars is too powerful. Pointing only to the oil isn’t sufficient, IMHO. People need all the dots connected.

            Meanwhile, what do you imagine? That tar sand protests are going to bring down the car? That strikes me as a much wilder and less plausible approach than taking on cars and capitalists directly.

  • One problem is that there is actually no boom as oil production will drop elsewhere, and the increase for US production will not even meet current demand. Another problem is that the IEA also stated earlier that even with lower oil consumption we will still see the effects of global warming.

  • so weird the way it’s phrased “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be
    consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.”

    i know that’s not what it meant but it sounds as if we’re shooting to get AT 2 C. we really ought to be trying to stay as far under that increase as possible.