On Facebook, RT asks:
I’d be interested to know where the data [in Visit Sunny Chernobyl] came from regarding the suggestion that CO2 emissions in Fort McMurray are double that of L.A. (pg. 61). Also, by “Fort McMurray”, can I assume that you really meant the overall oil sands development?
I’m more than happy to answer this kind of question (or any kind, really). Fact-check-y ones like this are especially great, because they allow me to live out a longstanding fantasy in which I field dozens upon dozens of challenges to the many factual assertions contained in the book… and emerge utterly victorious.
Before the book came out, I even intended to offer some kind of contest, in which I would challenge readers to find inaccuracies and mistakes—with a bounty of $10 per error. Crowdsourced fact checking! Just think of the social media engagement potential. But like many things that I think are truly brilliant ideas, I was the only one who thought it was brilliant, and so eventually I let it drop.
Still, good readers, if you do find any errors… Well, let’s just say I could still drum up a few prizes.
The passage in question reads:
…Don was no climate change skeptic. A huge amount of fuel was being burned to mine oil sands, and to extract and upgrade the bitumen—which meant a huge amount of carbon emissions. And those carbon emissions worried him.
“I once saw a map of CO2 emissions in North America,” he said. “There was a big fuzz up around Fort McMurray. The CO2 from Fort McMurray is probably the same as from all of Los Angeles.”
This leads me into a page-long digression (which, by the way, includes some pretty first-rate environmental philosophizing) and then the section wraps up:
As for Los Angeles, Don had his numbers wrong. Fort McMurray does not emit the same amount of carbon as LA. It emits twice as much.
So, RT, to your questions. To take the last one first, yes, you’re absolutely right: I’m using “Fort McMurray” here as shorthand for the entire oil sands industry, which is of course localized in the Fort McMurray area, but is by no means the same thing as the city of Fort McMurray itself. If I had to do it again, I might say “the oil sands industry” instead of “Fort McMurray” in that second-to-last sentence. Not that I think you deserve a prize for that one.
And now for the “twice as much” part.
I didn’t want to pass along Don’s contention if it was bogus, so first I went looking for a good number for Los Angeles’s CO2 emissions. (Actually, this research was most likely done by my colleague Adam. He helped me a lot with my fact checking.) What we came up with was a number of 18.5 million tons of carbon per year. This came from a 2008 Science Daily article about Purdue University’s Vulcan Project (“a NASA/DOE funded effort under the North American Carbon Program (NACP) to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions”).
To quantify the carbon emissions of the oil sands industry, we ended up at a 2011 post at the Oil Blog, which is written by analysts at a company called Evaluate Energy (“a UK based Energy information specialist”). The text of the post focuses on per-barrel emissions, but in the second graph you can see that total CO2 emissions for 2009 (including both “in situ” and traditional mine-and-upgrade methods) hit about 44 million metric tons, which converts to 48 million short tons. (“Short tons” is the precise term for what we just call “tons” in the US).
Science Daily and Vulcan looked rock solid to me, and Evaluate Energy’s work also seemed reliable, as it was a professional analysis. If anything, I would expect them to understate emissions (if, say, they are particularly cozy with industry).
So, now we have 44M tons for the oil sands, and 18.5M for Los Angeles, which actually amounts to two and a half times as much for our friends in Alberta. But the comparison isn’t ideal. For one thing, the data are for a few years ago. Also, they aren’t for the same year (2009 for the oil sands, 2008 for LA). Surely these numbers have fluctuated since then, especially considering the recession and what have you. Perhaps Los Angeles’s emissions have grown steadily, and the oil sands’ have declined. (Note that the main topic of the Oil Blog post is that per-barrel emissions had fallen. So even if production had remained level in 2009-2011, it seems entirely possible that total oil sands-related emissions might have fallen.)
With this in mind, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable calling it 2.5x, and so I rounded down—waaay down—to 2x. It seemed like ideal from a getting-your-numbers-straight POV: I get to make an outrageous claim, while at the same time being conservative in how I back that claim up.
“Twice as much” is shocking, but from what I can tell, it may even be an understatement.