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Expensive weather events triggered by climate change underscore the risk of expanding tar sands oil extraction

March 14th, 2012

Liz Barratt-Brown NRDC

More Americans than ever believe that climate change is responsible for the strange weather they see around them.  A recent poll shows that over 60% of the American public believes that climate change is real and that they are basing this belief on their observation that winters and summers are warmer and that there seem to be more extreme weather events, like droughts and tornadoes.  The spate of tornadoes across the Midwest and southern U.S. in early March reminds us of the terrible human and economic toll these disasters can have.

And it is not just the public that is linking extreme weather to climate change.  For the first time, scientists are saying that climate change is a major causal factor in unusual weather events – droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat – and have formed an alliance to investigate exceptional weather events.  After years of declining to link specific events to climate change, they now say that it is no longer plausible to characterize these events as merely “consistent” with climate change.   The Alliance’s team of scientists from around the world will issue a report by the end of the year that analyzes how each extreme weather event may have been caused by climate change.

The insurance industry needs no convincing that there is a link.  A report by a European insurance think tank issued this month urges government to “wake up” to the seriousness of the situation.  Calling 2011, Annus Horribilis, the report documents the 1900 tornadoes and flooding in the U.S., Australia, Thailand, and Pakistan that made last year the second highest year of economic losses from weather, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since the 1980s.  Of the 820 disasters recorded last year, 90% of them were related to severe weather, up from less than 400 in the ‘80s.  Along similar lines, NRDC has produced a map that shows severe weather events across the U.S. and documents the estimated $53 billion in damage.

At a hearing in the U.S. Senate earlier this month, Pete Thomas from Willis Re, which insures insurance companies, said that 4/5s of Americans now live in extreme event areas – coastal cities have seen increased hurricanes and flooding, the Midwest flooding, drought elsewhere, and there are water security issues across the U.S.

At the hearing, Senator Whitehouse said that Washington is stuck in an “unreality” – which is especially acute when it comes to climate change.  One of the great disappointments of the past couple of years is the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive climate legislation.  That means that we are now left having to fight dirty energy proposals one at a time.

No fight has garnered more attention than the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which, if it were approved, would pump 900,000 barrels a day of extra-dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, through America’s heartland, and to the Gulf of Mexico where it would be refined and sent overseas.  On March 8, the U.S. Senate wisely rejected an amendment on the Transportation bill that would have automatically approved the pipeline in spite of the intensive lobbying by the oil industry to approve it.

A house in Trussville, Ala., destroyed by a tornado in January 2012. (Photo: FEMA)

According to the EPA, the emissions from extraction of tar sands to fill a pipeline the size of the Keystone XL would be the equivalent to building 7 new coal fired power plants.  Or, according to our calculations, adding 6.2 million more cars to the road for 50 years.  But its impacts are really far greater, diverting the U.S. from the need to reduce our oil use now to protect against worsening climate change.  A new fact sheet by NRDC, The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Hinders Climate Change Progress, lays out why pursuing tar sands oil takes us backwards.

The good news is that, even without comprehensive climate legislation, the U.S. is on the right track.  Due mainly to better auto and truck efficiency standards, our oil use has peaked and is expected to stay flat for the next two decades.   We are now net exporters of gasoline.  Putting to use already known technologies, we can adopt policies that reduce our oil use by nearly 6 million barrels a day, which is more than twice what we import from Canada overall, our largest source of foreign oil.  This would put a significant dent in the nearly 20 million barrels that we now consume every day.

Leaders like Retired Brigadier General Steven Anderson understand why reducing our oil use is so critical.  At a hearing last year on the impacts of the pipeline, he said that it will lull us into a dangerous belief that we can keep consuming oil.  As General Petraeus’ right hand logistics chief in Iraq, he saw first-hand the price we pay moving oil around in the field.  And he believes climate change is real and that that will mean more conflict around the globe, and thus, more oil use.

But the policies we need most are under attack not just by oil giants but by Alberta and the Canadian federal government as well.  A new report documents the Canadian federal government’s extensive lobbying  to ensure that no policies get in the way of their rapid – and

Tornado damage near Henryville, Indiana, March 2012 (Photo: FEMA)

reckless – development of the tar sands.  The report, Dirty Diplomacy, shows how a country, once a leader on climate change, has worked to undercut clean fuels and climate policies in other countries and thwart action in international forums.

This past summer, James Hansen said it will be “game over” for preventing catastrophic climate change if tar sands oil continues to be extracted at its current pace.  As the U.S. government’s chief climatologist and one of the first to warn of climate change, it must indeed be frightening to watch the astounding transformation of the oil industry toward dirty fuels and extreme energy.

Hundreds of miles north of far north, billions of dollars are being invested that will commit us to oil –one of the most high carbon oils – for the foreseeable future.  That is why the tar sands extraction is a dirty and dangerous step backward, and why it is imperative that, with the horrible images from this month’s tornado destruction still brandished on our collective consciousness, we do whatever we can to “wake up” our public officials.  Read our fact sheet and then join us at Stoptar.org.

(Liz Barratt-Brown is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where this blog first appeared. She is currently trying to solve problems related to the Alberta tar sands, where an area of the boreal forest is being destroyed to produce oil.)


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