Energy agency official: On climate, oil sands aren't the big problem

The reports and pronouncements of the International Energy Agency (IEA) are giving political ammunition to both sides in the fight over the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Last week green groups that oppose Keystone and Canadian oil sands production pounced on a finding buried in the new edition of the IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook. The agency said big new pipelines like Keystone XL are needed to enable and accelerate planned oil sands production growth that’s forecast to more than double in coming decades.

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But IEA chief economist Fatih Birol is now giving the pro-Keystone forces something to cheer. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Birol said the higher carbon emissions from producing oil sands compared to conventional oil shouldn’t be a top focus in the battle against climate change.

From The Globe and Mail:

Mr. Birol said the key culprits are the use of coal for electricity, particularly in fast-growing Asia; the $500-billion in global subsidies of oil consumption, which encourage over-use; and the failure to embrace energy efficiency.

“The oil sands definitely makes a contribution to the increase in CO2 emissions,” he said. “But the difference in getting oil from oil sands when compared to conventional oil, it is such a small contribution that it will be definitely wrong to highlight this as a major source of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.”

The IEA’s latest report also warns that global emissions are on track to raise temperatures well beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target for avoiding some of the most severe effects of climate change.