What are the alternatives to tar sands?
The risks of transporting diluted bitumen have been demonstrated by spills in Burnaby, BC in 2007, Kalamazoo River, Michigan in 2010 and in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. There is also the question of whether bitumen-carrying pipelines are in the economic best interests of residents of British Columbia. The bitumen is all for export. According to the company’s own documentation, Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion would result in a net increase of only fifty permanent jobs after the expenditure of billions by the company. What are the alternatives?
Between 2008-2013, there have been remarkable developments in renewable energy, particularly in solar photovoltaics. Germany's Renewable Energy Act (2000), with its innovative use of feed-in tariffs has resulted in an "energy shift," allowing individuals and communities to produce power for the grid at guaranteed prices. The result is that Germany is exceeding its targets for conversion to renewable energy—surpassing 25% of electrical power in 2012 and on track to reach 35% well before the target date of 2020. Germany, with a climate similar to Southern British Columbia, and in the same latitude, has more than quadrupled its solar power production since 2008 and is now the world leader. China doubled its renewable energy production in 2012 and is now mass-producing photovoltaics, making solar power more cost-effective. Northern European countries, and many American states have made major advances in renewable energy production, as have Ontario and Quebec. Europe and Japan have shown leadership in the transition to electric transportation and rapid transit. These examples demonstrate that transition to a clean energy future is now more feasible than ever. Yet we also know that the progress in the past two decades has not been fast enough to prevent global climate change. Some observations:
- Climate change is real - Catastrophic storms, droughts, species extinctions, the melting of polar ice caps, and ocean acidification have driven home the realization that humans are changing planetary systems in unsustainable ways.
- Carbon pollution is now understood to be the problem - Despite two decades of climate disinformation funded by the petroleum industry (Hoggan, J., 2009, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming), polls consistently show that a large majority of North Americans now realize that human over-consumption of fossil fuels is the main source of carbon pollution, which is the cause of climate change. Rates of fossil fuel extraction and deforestation must be reduced to keep global warming to below 2 degrees C over the pre-industrial average. The current level of tar sands production is moving the world in the opposite direction ( Biello, D. Scientific American, January 23, 2013).
- The need for change is pressing - There is a scientific consensus that the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. On April 25, 2013, the daily CO2 level, measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was 399.72 parts per million and a few hourly readings had risen to more than 400 parts per million ("Greenhouse gas levels highest in 3m years," Sydney Morning Herald, April 29, 2013).
- Governments must act now - International governments have thus far failed to enact measures that will limit carbon to keep the planet below 2 degrees C warming. There are economic benefits to taking action right away. Renewable and low carbon sources generate more jobs than the fossil fuel sector per unit of energy delivered. This is because they provide relatively more jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance. Green jobs are also an economic driver for economies; the more so if early action is taken (Union of Concerned Scientists, March 2009; Wei, Patadi & Kammena, 2010). We must press our governments to act.
In 2011, the International Energy Agency projected that solar power generators may produce most of the world’s electricity by 2060 (Sills, B., Blomberg, Aug 29, 2011). It has been estimated that given the political will, it would be possible to power 100% of the world's energy with wind, hydroelectric, and solar power within 20-30 years (Jacobson and Delucchi, Scientific American, November 2009). To achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, and keep global warming below 2 degrees C, world leaders would have to commit to reasonable climate and energy goals now. The graphic below, from "The True Cost of Fossil Fuels," by Mason Inman (Scientific American, April, 2013), shows that solar power now has a higher return in energy per dollar invested than tar sands; wind power now surpasses all fossil fuels in energy return on investment (EROI).