GUEST VIEW: Line 3 is 'game over' for the environment
April 2, 2021
I remember reading about 10 years ago that, if Canada’s tar sands ever go into full production, it will be “Game over for the environment.” The article argued that climate change would be thrown into overdrive.
Without energy, there can be no economic activity. Without energy, there are no usable natural resources. When we still lived as hunter gatherers, we used the caloric energy in our food to hunt and gather more food. Those who expended more energy hunting and gathering than they gained from hunting and gathering, would perish.
Then we discovered fossil fuels, and we put these nonrenewable fossil fuel “energy slaves” to work for us and our lives have been totally transformed. A barrel of oil contains about the same amount of energy as the work done by an adult human working for four and a half years. This worked miracles for us for about a century. A hundred years ago, one unit of energy invested in drilling for oil, paid back, on average, about 100 units — giving 99 units of net usable energy. In economic terms, it was a “free lunch” and we’ve been using it like a free lunch ever since. About 97 percent of the world’s transportation runs on oil, a nonrenewable resource that cannot be recycled when used for energy.
But the net energy ratio for conventional oil has now fallen to around 20 or 25 to 1. Fracking for oil gives us about 7 to 1. Mining of tar sands oil gives us a net energy ratio of 5 to 1. But 80 percent of the tar sands are too deep to mine, and the steam extraction process for accessing these deeper deposits has a net energy ratio of 3 to 1. For three units of usable units of energy, you have to invest/burn an additional unit of fossil fuels, converting it to carbon dioxide — game over for the environment. Charles Hall, the founder of the new field of biophysical economics, argues that we need a net energy ratio of about 13 to 1 to maintain the standard of living that we have come to enjoy in the U.S. Clearly, we are now using the dregs and are approaching the end of “The Age of Oil.”
Of course, a lot of people don’t believe climate change is real and we are told over and over that the science is unsettled, that there is no consensus amongst scientists. But that is disinformation put out for political ends — there has been a scientific consensus that man has been causing global warming since 1979.
Climate change is almost certainly the most intensively studied scientific issue in history. The scientists best qualified to judge whether climate change is happening, and whether we are the cause, are climate scientists who are actively conducting research and publishing in peer reviewed journals. They are the ones “at the top of their game.” Study after study shows that, amongst active climate scientist researchers, 97 percent find the evidence convincing that climate change is both real and that we are the cause, 2 percent are on the fence and only 1 percent believes that climate change is either not real or that we are not the cause. Just try to find a consensus that strong on any other issue.
We have already raised carbon dioxide levels back to where they were about 5 million years ago, but there is a huge lag time before the impacts are fully realized because it takes so long for the oceans to warm up and the continental glaciers to melt. All of the world’s coastal cities are going to be severely flooded.
Line 3 is being built to carry tar sands kerogen — a substance related to oil — and adding more than 30 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for each usable unit of kerogen. Game over for the environment. The tar sands kerogen needs to stay in the ground.
Roy Hagen lives in Cloquet and is a forester, ecologist and environmentalist who works as an independent natural resources consultant, mostly in Africa.