McQuaig was right about the oilsands. So what are we doing about it?

Science supports her contention that “a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground”.

Toronto Centre NDP candidate Linda McQuaig argued recently that “a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground” if Canada is to meet its climate change targets. She touched off a controversy that’s still simmering away.

As seen in iPolitics.
As seen in iPolitics.

But is she right? What does the science have to say about it?

The notion that some of the planet’s fossil fuel reserves might have to remain unconsumed is hardly a new one in the scientific community — or in the energy industry, for that matter. The International Energy Agency (IEA) wrote in 2012 that “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” — the 2°C target being generally accepted as the maximum amount of global temperature rise tolerable in a safe climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) added in 2013 that “only a small fraction of reserves can be exploited”.

So, a reasonable starting point is the assumption that two-thirds or more of our proven oil reserves will need to be left in the ground if Canada is to do its part. But it’s not as simple as that. Canada’s oilsands are terribly expensive to develop. Countries with less expensive oil might argue that it’s more economical to develop their resources first. Others would surely listen.

So what’s the economically-optimal solution?

A recent article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature offers an answer. Using computer simulations that modelled production, refinement, transport costs and more, the authors presented quotas for fossil fuel-producing regions. Their least-cost solution for production from Canada’s oilsands, from 2010 onward, was 7.5 billion barrels of bitumen total.

How does this compare with Canada’s current production and plans? According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) there are 24.4 billion barrels of bitumen already under active development — over three times the quota. At the current rate (841 million barrels of bitumen produced per year) we have less than five years of economically optimal production left.

What can be done? Clearly, we can’t shut down the oilsands in five years — not without an economic catastrophe. But neither can we unilaterally decide to produce more than our share. The 315 billion barrels of bitumen the AER says is ultimately recoverable from the oilsands represents up to three-quarters of the oil the Nature paper says can be produced globally if the 2°C target is to be met.

The solution to this dilemma is negotiation: we need to develop a plan in concert with other nations. If we are to produce more fossil fuels than our share, others countries will have to produce less. If our special needs are to be accommodated, then those of other countries — including developing nations — will need to be addressed.

A new climate agreement is to be forged at the United Nations conference in Paris this December, only six weeks after our federal election. It is crucial that we evaluate proposals being put forward by our political leaders in light of the evidence at hand.

Will Canadians do their part to combat the threat of climate change? This federal election campaign will stand out, for good or ill, as one of the most important in our history.

Thomas J. Duck is a professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University.

Note: The subtitle for this story did not appear in the original.

(Updated 15 September 2015)