The le­gal fight to leave the dirt­i­est fos­sil fu­els in the ground

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View / Environment - John Abra­ham

Tar sands are the dirt­i­est fos­sil fu­els. These are low-qual­ity heavy tar-like oils that are mined from sand or rock. Much of the min­ing oc­curs in Al­berta Canada, but it is also mined else­where, in lesser quan­ti­ties.

Tar sands are the worst. Not only are they re­ally hard to get out of the ground, re­quir­ing enor­mous amounts of en­ergy; not only are they dif­fi­cult to transport and to re­fine; not only are they more pol­lut­ing than reg­u­lar oils; they even have a by-prod­uct called ”pet­coke” that’s used in power plants, but is dirt­ier than reg­u­lar coal.

This stuff is worse than reg­u­lar oil, worse than coal, worse than any­thing. Any­one who is se­ri­ous about cli­mate change can­not agree to mine and burn tar sands. To main­tain cli­mate change below crit­i­cal thresh­olds, tar sands need to be left in the ground.

This fact is what mo­ti­vated me to tes­tify to the Min­nesota Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion last Novem­ber, to in­form my state’s rul­ing com­mis­sion about the im­pact of tar sands on the cli­mate. Cana­dian en­ergy com­pany En­bridge has pe­ti­tioned to put a pipe­line through my state to carry this dirty tar to refin­ing sites on the coast.

The pro­posed pipe­line is called “Line 3.” The pipe­line would carry ap­prox­i­mately 760,000 bar­rels per day – the new pipe­line would make it eas­ier and cheaper for the oil com­pa­nies to transport tar sands and con­se­quently, would boost their bot­tom line. We al­ready move over two mil­lion bar­rels per day through Min­nesota in En­bridge pipe­lines. This new pipe­line would en­cour­age them to ex­tract and sell more tar sands.

So, how much pol­lu­tion would this pipe­line carry? 170bn kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide each year. The emis­sions are equal to ap­prox­i­mately 50 coal power plants. These are huge num­bers, but more im­por­tantly, ap­proval of pipe­lines like this make it more likely that all of the tar sands in Al­berta will be ex­tracted. If that hap­pens, global tem­per­a­tures will in­crease by ap­prox­i­mately 0.65° F (0.36°C). An as­ton­ish­ing num­ber – ap­prox­i­mately 3 decades worth of global warm­ing.

If you care about cli­mate change, then it is not log­i­cally pos­si­ble to ap­prove any pipe­line or other in­fra­struc­ture that may fur­ther worsen our cli­mate. We are al­ready screw­ing up the cli­mate enough as it is.

The de­ci­sion-mak­ing body in my state has heard cli­mate ar­gu­ments be­fore. In fact, in 2016, the same body ruled against the coal gi­ant Pe­abody. That rul­ing de­cided that fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies low-balled the so­cial cost of car­bon. Back then, Pe­abody brought in a group of cli­mate con­trar­i­ans to ar­gue their non­sense. My col­leagues and I were able to con­vince the Com­mis­sion that the facts were clear – we are caus­ing cli­mate change, and our de­ci­sions to­day can make to­mor­row’s cli­mate worse. This rul­ing was used when eval­u­at­ing the so­cial cost of car­bon pol­lu­tion for a new Line 3 pipe­line. A judge found that emis­sions from this pro­ject would im­pose $287bn in so­cial costs over 30 years.

In this case, the oil com­pany En­bridge did not in­vite any con­trar­ian cli­mate sci­en­tists. They sim­ply fo­cused on ar­gu­ments that a new pipe­line will be safer to op­er­ate (fewer spills) and lessen other is­sues like rail traf­fic. They ef­fec­tively con­ceded the cli­mate ar­gu­ments.

The de­ci­sion will be re­vealed later this month. But al­ready, an Ad­min­is­tra­tive Law Judge has given a rec­om­men­da­tion that the new pipe­line be built, but in the ex­act same lo­ca­tion as the cur­rent pipe. While this rec­om­men­da­tion presents large costs to En­bridge, it com­pletely misses the science. The judge’s opin­ion made no men­tion of cli­mate change. How can a de­ci­sion on ex­tract­ing tar sands be made with­out con­sid­er­ing cli­mate ef­fects?

Just last week, the staff of the com­mis­sion also rec­om­mended con­struc­tion of the new pipe­line. They too omit­ted cli­mate change from their de­ci­sion.

I was proud to be able to stand along­side to­mor­row’s lead­ers. Coura­geous youth be­came par­ties to the lit­i­ga­tion and helped ar­range the tes­ti­mony of var­i­ous cli­mate ex­perts like my­self. One of the youth in­volved in the lit­i­ga­tion, Frances Wether­all, sum­ma­rized her view and told me why she was in­volved in the case.

Whether or not these youth pre­vail in this case, their courage, in­tel­li­gence, and drive give me hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.

I am hope­ful that the com­mis­sion dis­misses these opin­ions. It is clear to me that not only must tar sands be kept in the ground, but ac­tions to as­sist in their ex­trac­tion make one com­plicit. I be­lieve that de­ci­sions have con­se­quences and we must take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our de­ci­sions. We can­not say “cli­mate mat­ters” and then fa­cil­i­tate tar sands ex­trac­tions. We also can­not say “we didn’t know” when our chil­dren ask us why we made poor de­ci­sions.

I would hate to be a fos­sil fuel lawyer, or ex­ec­u­tive, or law­maker who fights for cli­mate destruc­tion to­day and has to jus­tify his ac­tions to his kids to­mor­row. His­tory will be a very harsh judge to them; but of course it will be too late for the rest of us.

I’ve said this be­fore and I will say it again, if we can­not say no to tar sands, what can we say no to?

Dis­clo­sure: I tes­ti­fied as an un­paid expert wit­ness on be­half of Youth Cli­mate In­ter­venors.

Pho­to­graph: David Levene for the Guardian

Trucks and ma­chin­ery along routes within the Sun­core tar sands site near to Fort McMur­ray in North­ern Al­berta.

Frances Wether­all, a youth in­volved in cli­mate lit­i­ga­tion

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