Carbon Capture No Silver Bullet for Tar Sands

Published on
by
The Toronto Star

Carbon Capture No Silver Bullet for Tar Sands

by
Gerald Butts

Keep smoking kids. We need the tax revenue. Trust us, we will cure cancer by the time you get it.

So goes our national political leaders' myopic view of the tar sands. The argument from tar-sands defenders in both the Conservative and Liberal ranks can be fairly summarized as follows: "We know this is bad for us but we have faith that a technological fix called carbon capture and storage will make everything better."

We at WWF pride ourselves on being a science-based organization. We go where the science leads us and it is true that carbon capture and storage has shown some potential.

My colleague Carter Roberts, president of WWF-US, and I have written to President Barack Obama to say that we see carbon storage as a welcome but limited weapon in the fight against climate change.

Specifically, the science tells us that it may be technically feasible (though exceedingly expensive) to capture 90 per cent of the carbon emitted by a new coal-fired generator, but just 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases associated with oil from tar sands.

The governments of Canada and Alberta know this. Their task force on the subject told them as much just a year ago: "Oil-sands operations are very diverse (both geographically and technically) and only a small portion of the carbon dioxide streams are currently amenable for carbon capture and storage."

This knowledge also found its way into the agreement signed by Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They agreed to "co-ordinate research and demonstrations of carbon capture and sequestration technology at coal-fired plants." References to the tar sands were noticeable by their absence.

Yet the Alberta government's multi-million-dollar, taxpayer-funded public relations campaign uses this technological fairy tale to front a "Dig, Baby, Dig" agenda that would make Sarah Palin blush.

We are fooling no one, except perhaps ourselves. An article in National Geographic's current issue, "Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom," has aroused attention and excited responses from all quarters. While perhaps the most graphic, that venerable magazine is far from the only respected international publication casting a cold eye on our tar-sands strategy. Nature, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times have all recently featured the horrifically sublime wasteland we are making of the Athabaska Valley as the new face of Canada.

From hewers of wood and drawers of water to makers of moonscapes and creators of toxic tailing ponds: What a face for Canada to show the world.

As bad as that image might be, the reality is worse. We could be using our enviable natural and human capital to lead the global fight for a sustainable 21st-century economy, creating lasting jobs and a stable climate.

Instead of investing in solutions to the problem that will almost certainly define our children's generation, we are spending untold billions to dig a deeper hole for them. While the rest of the world searches for a low-carbon path to growth, we are betting the national economy on a carbon footprint deeper than even conventional fossil fuels.

We will not be remembered well for this.

We can stabilize the climate and create new jobs by making greener cars and plugging them into a smart, green grid powered by Canada's abundant sources of renewable energy. We can achieve energy security through smarter urban planning and better public transit. And we can create a better future by getting freight off our highways and back onto our railroads and sea lanes.

Ultimately, if tar-sands supporters believe the arguments they make, they will support absolute emission limits, such as those recommended by the Nobel Prize-winning scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That would subject tar-sands investment dollars to fair market competition with lower carbon sources of energy. With carbon capture and storage an imminent reality, there would be no reason to resist hard emission controls. In short, if our political leaders are so sure the cancer cure is just around the corner, let's see them take up smoking for themselves.

Don't hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Why take the risk when you can outsource it to the next generation?

Canadians deserve a more honest debate about tar-sands development. If the leaders of our two major national parties cling to the outdated notion that we need to endure environmental devastation to grow the economy, then let them say so. They will find themselves espousing a view that is seriously offside with the values of Canadians and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.

Gerald Butts is the president and CEO of WWF Canada.

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