The Tar Sands and the Pine Beetle


Global fossil fuel emissions hit a record high of 31.6 Gts[1], in 2011, an increase of one billion metric tonnes over 2010 levels. This trend makes dangerous warming difficult to avoid. Since coal, oil and gas will be primary energy sources for several decades before being replaced by clean alternatives, the world needs another solution.


Photosynthesis is the best way to remove atmospheric CO2. The Earth’s other natural sink, the oceans, also absorbs CO2 , but doing so forms carbonic acid. Ocean acidification is beginning to dissolve the calcariferous exoskeletons of crustacean, bi-valve and shell spawn, and has been shown to affect krill and plankton, the foundations of the ocean food chain, thus reducing local catches.


Terrestrial sinks from increased reforestation, improved agriculture soils, restored wetland and riparian areas can all increase removal of atmospheric CO2, and are well known for their added benefits -- restoring biodiversity, improved food security, increased water quality and ameliorating poverty. A global conservation program may reverse rural decline.


Restoring terrestrial ecosystems makes sense to most everyone, but ‘Who should pay’? Norway, the sixth largest oil exporter in the world, took a lead in answering that question. It committed one billion dollars to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Degradation (REDD) in Guyana and one billion in Indonesia; two of the poorest countries with large tropical forests.


However, corruption and weak governance, exacerbated by increasing demand for food, fiber and fuel, prevented these countries from meeting Norway’s bilateral conditions for its conservation payments. The UN REDD readiness programs may take too long to help these poorest governments become more transparent, educate local communities and link conservation impacts to regional deforestation drivers.

Brazil, working internally since 2004, reduced deforestation by 73% in its largest rainforest state, Amazonas, and is saving the resulting carbon credits for its energy industry.


A large emission juxtaposed with a large sink offers a similar internal opportunity within a slightly more stable jurisdiction.  Canada’s fossil fuel sector emitted 592 million tonnes in 2011[2], an increase of 17% over 2010. British Columbia’s Mountain Pine Beetle exploded into a super-population from twenty successive warm winters, creating a forest health catastrophe and killed a historically unprecedented 20 million hectares of pine[3] for which there are no funds to adequately reforest the area.



Some two to four million hectares of area is not reforesting adequately. Like Norway with Guyana and Indonesia, Alberta could remove one to two hundred million tonnes of oil sands emissions by restoring BC (and Alberta’s) forests from climate catastrophe, while helping the poorest remote communities in Canada.


The current plans to pipe Alberta oil sands raw crude through British Columbia’s climate-devastated forests must catalyze this conversation.  Even the Alberta section of the route goes through areas with Mountain Pine Beetle mortality. There are several ways for the oil sector to show leadership by responding to the need to reforest these lands.


First, the oil sector can offer to directly fund the reforestation of the beetle devastated area in exchange for the climate credits.

Second, Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan could, like Norway, work with the oil industry to develop a collaborative public private partnership (PPP) to renew the pine mortality regions in exchange for climate credits. 

Third, refining oil sand crude in Canada may provide an opportunity for the federal government to play a role in reducing gas prices at the pump[4] and transferring some of those savings to restoration programs in every province in Canada, beginning with BC beetle area.

Fourth, federal and provincial governments could redeploy current oil sector subsidies into restoring Canada’s forests, ecosystems and agricultural soils.


A bioethical conversation to explore these pathways will forge the strongest bonds between source and sink.


The UN envoys report on poverty by DeSchutter in May, 2012[5], slammed Canada for its treatment of First Nations noting “Canada has the fiscal space to address the basic human needs of its most marginalized and disempowered.”  Employing First Nations to restore forest health in their devastated traditional territories and remove atmospheric carbon from the oil sector may truly be a pathway to a more ethical fossil fuel industry, especially if it also made Canada’s oil sector CO2 neutral.


There are many similar large emissions regions juxtaposed with large potential sinks in varying direct relationships. Some are in the same country, like Australia’s coal sector and its Carbon Farming Initiative; or Texas oil and Texas rangeland restoration; or Brazil’s off-shore oil and reforesting deforested farmlands; or China’s coal and shale oil and its Great Green Wall initiative to stop deforestation along its northern borders in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria.


Partnerships like Norway and Guyana require bilateral agreements that are more difficult to deliver but deserve to be championed. All linkages across the world’s 200 countries build common cause and unite this fractured world. Difficult sinks like Haiti may wait some time for a strong bilateral suitor.


2012’s climate negotiations are being hosted by Qatar in Doha-- a first for the Arab league or OPEC countries. Qatar’s offer to host the UNFCCC COP 18 creates a unique opportunity for the global oil sector todevelop a green initiative to transition to CO2 neutral coal, gas and oil energy.  Oil & gas emissions from North Africa and the Middle East form a natural bond to mop up CO2 through soil and forest restoration in the rest of Africa.


Oil, which created this incredible stage of civilization and its climate side effects, may also help manoeuvre the world away from dangerous climate change. After one hundred years of Paul Bunyan stomping around, governments decided harvesters should pay for reforestation. Oil has been spewing fumes into everyone’s air for more than one hundred years. It is time for the oil sector to pay to remove atmospheric carbon by restoring forests and soils.  


[1]International Energy Agency an increase of 1 Gt, 45% from coal, 35% from oil and 20% from natural gas. One Gt is one billion metric tonnes.

[2] Environment Canada

[3] MoForest 17.5 million ha of Pl (lodgepole pine) and Alan Vyse, 2.3 million ha of ponderosa pine.

[4] Enbridge argues exporting raw crude is an economic benefit because the price of oil will double over thirty years. This will result in higher prices at the pump, perhaps from exporting oil sand crude to China and the US and shipping refined products back to Canada. If keeping refining jobs in Canada avoids that cost perhaps there is a savings there. See economist Robyn Allan’s analysis at