STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

Just another weblog

Blame Passengers, not airlines

Posted by notarsands on January 15, 2008

David Reevely
The Ottawa Citizen
The Natural Resources Defence Council is a pretty credible environmental organization, which last week appealed to North American airlines to swear off dirty sources of jet fuel, including the Alberta tar sands.”An area the size of Florida could be directly affected by strip mining and drilling for the tar-like substance that is cracked to make oil. … Also at risk is Alberta’s northern boreal forest, the largest terrestrial storehouse of climate regulating carbon and the nesting ground for millions of songbirds and waterfowl,” the council wrote to 15 airlines, including Air Canada and WestJet. It asks them to buy more fuel-efficient planes, seek shorter routes and haul their planes around on the ground using electricity rather than jet fuel.

Most of the suggestions make sense on business grounds — all except the most important one.

The council points out, rightly, that in our species’ quest for fuel, we’re starting to do all kinds of dumb things. The Alberta tar sands are making a lot of people rich by supplying a growing proportion of U.S. energy needs, but the extraction operations themselves consume colossal amounts of energy and water and emit tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas. The United States is keen on turning coal (which it has lots of) into liquid fuels, but this is likewise energy intensive and it’s dirty, too.

As long as we like our world fuelled by burning carbon-based fuels and are willing to pay for them, this kind of thing will continue — digging oil out of the tar sands makes economic sense if people are willing to pay $100 a barrel for it, as we clearly are. The trouble is that we see these things as great opportunities rather than necessary evils.

In Canada, we still have generous federal tax treatment for new oilsands projects, which amounts to a subsidy. Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach has decided to increase his province’s share of the profits from projects that extract publicly owned oil, but his province is still an impressively easy place to make oil money, for companies with the capital to put up to get started. Alberta is the only province to put a real price on greenhouse-gas emissions, although the price is low — $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide beyond a set limit, far below the $50 or so for every tonne that’s at the low end of expert estimates of what we should have to rein in climate change.

In the United States, politicians from coal-mining states are delirious over the prospect of a massive new market for their dusty black gold, and they’re pushing subsidy programs to develop coal-liquefication technology like there’s no tomorrow.

So we do make environmental degradation more appealing than it needs to be, and the Natural Resources Defense Council is doing its job by pointing that out. Asking airlines to join in the fight, however, is a bit like asking golf-course operators to fight for more restrictions on water use, or for high-rise dwellers to call for an elevator tax. It’s not just difficult, it’s diametrically opposed to their interests. At heart, flying planes is a fuel-burning business and jet fuel is the airlines’ lifeblood.

Even if all the airlines refused to buy fuel that began as coal or oilsands tar, they’d just buy more oil that started out with the usual suspects — repressive, unstable, sometimes rogue countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria (whose product has to be shipped a long, fuel-burning distance to get it to North America at all). A different category of evil, one outside the Natural Resource Defense Council’s mandate, but still a problem. And then the tar sands producers would just sell their stuff to Air China instead of Air Canada and we’d be no further ahead.

Buying oil already tends to involve a Catch-22. The profits support either environmental degradation or gross human-rights violations, and as supplies become slowly scarcer, the options will become ever-less palatable: the northern wildlife preserves instead of boreal forest, genocidal Sudan instead of oppressive Saudi Arabia.

The real problem is much bigger than where airlines get their jet fuel. The real problem is frivolous flying, the ease with which we hop on planes when trains and cars would do — and the number of us who, having organized our lives in an era of cheap travel, have to fly several times a year to lay eyes on our loved ones. Now we find that this lifestyle choice contributes to climate change and supports dictators, and might not be sustainable even in theory if we are, in fact, beginning to run seriously low on oil.

Pinning the blame on those airlines that greedily sell us plane tickets is a lot easier than tackling that problem, though.

David Reevely is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board.

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