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New research: Arctic and tar sand oil production is ‘incompatible’ with limiting global warming

  • 14 Feb 2014, 13:10
  • Mat Hope

Jungbim

Governments wishing to eke out their domestic oil supplies are increasingly encouraging 'unconventional' fossil fuel exploration, as new technology allows companies to access difficult to reach resources. But such policies sit uneasily with climate goals.

In 1992, countries signed up to United Nations Framework on Climate Change, pledging to try and prevent the world warming by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. That means significantly curbing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the energy sector.

But many governments that agreed to the goal continue to implement policies which encourage oil extraction. A new paper by two University College London professors, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, suggests that's a problem, because extracting and burning oil emits a lot of greenhouse gases, with unconventional sources usually emitting the most.

McGlade and Ekins estimate around 600 billion barrels - or 45 per cent - of the world's known oil reserves will have to remain unused, if the world wants to have a better than even chance of keeping warming below two degrees.

'Unburnable' oil

Estimates of how much of the planet's oil may eventually be extracted are gradually increasing as companies develop technology which lets them tap harder to reach wells.

McGlade and Ekins say such practices are "simply incompatible" with limiting global temperature rises, however. The researchers modelled oil production across the world for the next 20 years, and worked out how emissions from the extraction process and burning oil sat within a 'budget' that would let the planet limit global warming to two degrees.

Their results suggest global oil production will have to peak in 2015 at a level only two per cent higher than 2010's production, before rapidly declining, if the world wants to stay on track for the two degrees goal.

Financial thinktank, Carbon Tracker, previously estimated that only 20 per cent of the world's remaining fossil fuel reserves can be burnt if the climate goal is going to remain attainable.

The new study continues along a similar path. But unlike previous studies, it doesn't only estimate how much oil must be left in the ground but tries to assess when - if at all - the remaining oil can be produced, and by who.

Arctic oil

In particular, the research suggests that opening a new front for oil in the Arctic is incompatible with hitting the two degrees target.

McGlade and Ekins say that unless technology which allows carbon dioxide to be captured and locked away is developed (known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology), there can be "no production from Arctic oil in any periods". Even with CCS, they say there can only be "a very minor contribution from Arctic oil production" in later years.

As such, McGlade and Ekins conclude that "it may be reasonable to classify Arctic resources as 'unburnable'" if governments are serious about tackling climate change.

Canada's tar sands

The Arctic isn't the only high profile exploration location which McGlade and Ekins say should largely be abandoned. The paper also takes an in-depth look at Canada, where companies are busy extracting oil from the energy rich tar sands. Environmental campaigners across the world have criticised the practice due to its considerable environmental impact.

McGlade and Ekins say that unless CCS technology is developed quickly, no oil from the tar sands can be extracted after 2012 if the world wants to have 50 per cent chance of hitting the two degrees target.

Even if CCS is developed, they say Canada's oil production can't reach the levels the Canadian government is projecting if it's serious about hitting the climate goal.

McGlade and Ekins estimate that about 80 per cent of the oil that Canada's government says is available would have to stay in the ground. Though they acknowledge that the government's oil reserve estimate is probably optimistic, so the figure could be lower.

Incompatible policy

Unsurprisingly, the research has been welcomed by environmental groups campaigning against Arctic drilling and the tar sands. It's inevitable that labelling such oil "unburnable" will find favour with those calling for stronger climate action, but it's probably not climate campaigners that need persuading.

The Canadian government, in particular, doesn't seem so concerned. In 2011, it withdrew from a treaty that required it to reduce emissions by six per cent by 2012, and the government recently announced its emissions are far exceeding a level that would allow it to hit a new climate goal - perhaps signalling where its priorities lie.

Nevertheless, the new research does highlight the current mismatch between governments' climate promises and the business as usual of fossil fuel extraction.

But until the fossil fuel industry is convinced governments will make further oil extraction unprofitable, it's likely to continue with business as usual. In that case, supposedly 'unburnable' fuels will soon be burned.

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