WASHINGTON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Canada’s oil sands are an environmental “wild card,” NASA’s James Hansen said in an interview before President Barack Obama’s trip to Ottawa, where energy and climate change will be on the agenda.
As director of the U.S. space agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, with a focus on climate change, Hansen has long opposed the burning of oil, gas and coal for their contribution to global warming.
And he really objects to the burning of fuels gleaned from tar shale and tar sands in western Canada.
“If we burn all the conventional fuels — oil, gas and coal — we would be heading the planet to eventually an ice-free state,” Hansen said in an interview on Tuesday, two days before Obama’s scheduled visit to Canada, the first foreign trip of his presidency.
“This unconventional fossil fuel is a total wild card on top of that,” Hansen said. “You just can’t do it, that’s what politicians and international leaders have got to understand. You can’t exploit tar shale and tar sands without pushing things way beyond the limit. They’re just too carbon intensive.”
For this reason, Obama’s discussion on Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a “a really important meeting,” Hansen said.
There are financial and national security benefits to refining fuels from oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta, which holds some 173 billion barrels, the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East.
But getting them out of the ground is complicated and costly, in some cases requiring operators to scrape off as much as 100 feet (30.48 metres) of soil before reaching deposits layered with sand, clay and water.
Oil sands production emits four times the climate-warming greenhouse gases compared with conventional oil production, according to the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank.
Canada is the largest foreign supplier of crude oil to the United States, and Hansen acknowledged the appeal of “a stable, friendly source of energy” offered by oil sands.
“It looks like a great potential resource, if you didn’t have the climate problem,” Hansen said. “But we do!”
Obama has repeatedly stressed the need to combat climate change while developing new energy sources.
“I just hope that the president gives emphasis to the things that he said he would,” Hansen said. “He said he was going to listen to the science, unlike the prior administration, and he recognized that we have a planet in peril and he would include that in their plans for energy development.”
“This is the key test because we’re facing both the two huge challenges, that is coal and unconventional fossil fuels,” he said.
Hansen has pushed to phase out the use of coal by 2030, which would cut the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm), the level he considers “sane.” The level is now about 387 ppm and rising about 2 ppm annually, he said.
“If you began to phase out coal and if you had a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and phased the existing ones out by 2030, which is just barely feasible if governments really decided to be serious about this, then you would have a chance of stabilizing climate before you initiated irreversible changes, such as disintegration of the ice sheets and pushing a substantial fraction of species to extinction,” Hansen said. (Editing by David Wiessler)