Door County, Wisconsin


Clouds’ impact on climate change has been a scientific mystery, but a new study zeroes in on how they may be accelerating the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.

By Zahra Hirji

Clouds' role in climate change has been a mystery researchers are trying to solve

Clouds’ role in climate change has been a mystery researchers are trying to solve. Credit: Getty Images

Cloud patterns have been shifting over the past 30 years in ways that a new study says are possibly due to global warming––and may even lead to more warming in the future.

Climate scientists believe cloud changes are one of the biggest sources of uncertainty [1] in climate models and understanding how cloud patterns respond to rising greenhouse gas levels is critical to determining how much and how quickly global temperatures will rise.

This new study, published Monday in the journal Nature, provides for the first time a reliable record of past cloud changes spanning nearly three decades and a comparison of those changes with climate models. This brings researchers much closer to solving the mysterious cloud-climate relationship.

Most climate models have projected that global warming would cause the tops of certain clouds to move higher in the atmosphere and also trigger a decrease of cloudiness in the subtropics, expanding the dry zone there. The models also predict that these patterns will trigger more warming, creating what’s called a positive feedback loop.

The new findings offer “more evidence that clouds are going to be … [an] exacerbating factor” on climate change and not a mitigating one, lead author Joel Norris [2] told InsideClimate News.

Norris is a climate professor at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He conducted this study with five scientists from the University of California Riverside, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Colorado State University.

Because the only satellites available to monitor clouds for decades weren’t designed for this task, scientists haven’t been able to conclusively track cloud changes and compare them with the model results—until now. The study shows that these two cloud pattern changes predicted by the models have already been occurring in parts of the globe since at least the 1980s.

“It think it’s a very good study but it’s not really the smoking gun in terms of proving we know” how exactly clouds are impacting global warming, said Dennis Hartmann [3], a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Hartmann was not involved in the study.

Measuring cloudiness has been difficult, if not impossible, for researchers because they’ve had to rely on satellites designed to measure weather patterns, not clouds. Scientists seeking to use this data grapple with a daunting array of challenges: satellites shift orbits over time; sensors degrade; instruments have to be replaced. So the data are inconsistent, and previous attempts to correct for these issues have left flaws (called “artifacts”) in the data that have led to incorrect or ambiguous interpretation.

To fix that, Norris and his colleagues developed a way to systematically find and remove these data artifacts. This allowed them to clean up the data from two satellite projects—International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP) and Extended Pathfinder Atmospheres (PATMOS-x)—to clearly observe cloud patterns between 1983 and 2009.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Joyce Penner [4], an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study.

Their findings showed an increase in cloudiness in some regions and a decrease in others. They found that the subtropical dry zones—longitudinal bands containing many of the world’s deserts—are expanding. These areas could expect to see warmer surface temperatures and more evaporation, and possibly exacerbated droughts too.

The corrected data also showed the tops of the highest clouds are moving even higher in the atmosphere across the globe. This pattern could be even worse for the climate because clouds both absorb thermal radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface and emit some of that radiation to space. How well a cloud emits radiation to space depends on its temperature. Low clouds are more effective than high clouds at emitting radiation.

The researchers confirmed their findings with three other sources of satellite data used to indirectly measure cloudiness during the same time period.

After confirming that the cloud patterns they’d observed were real, Norris and others ran thousands of climate model simulations to see how they compared. Models set up to track changes in cloudiness due to natural variability did not match the observed patterns. Nor did models measuring the impact of ozone or other factors.

But models tracking cloud changes linked to greenhouse gas emissions or the impact of volcanoes spewing particles in the atmosphere did match. This means it is likely climate change along with the recovery of the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions has influenced the cloud changes observed between the early 1980s and late 2000s.

Penner said, however, the study doesn’t attempt to prove these cloud changes will then exacerbate global warming.

Hartmann praised the study, but said it raised a lot of questions, including why the observations revealed much more dramatic changes to cloudiness than the models predicted. Hartmann also said the study’s short time period was a limitation and questioned the findings that natural variability did not appear to account for the changes to cloudiness in the last few decades.

The study identified general changes in cloud patterns and did not attempt to measure and quantify such changes, either globally or in specific regions. Without these details, it’s difficult to predict how changing cloud patterns might impact Atlantic hurricane frequency or paths, for example, or other regional weather phenomena.

“It’s very enticing,” Penner said. “It leaves all these issues hanging out there that need further work.”


The currents are releasing 20 percent more heat than 50 years ago. Japan, China and Korea will warm faster and can expect more storminess, researchers say.

By Bob Berwyn

Men watch the ocean as super typhoon Nepartak nears the coast of Taiwan

There is reason to eye the ocean warily, as these men do as super typhoon Nepartak approaches the coast of Taiwan last week, as global warming increases the chances of stronger, more damaging storms. Credit: Reuters

Global warming is intensifying some of the world’s most important ocean currents, new research shows, raising the risk of damaging storms along heavily populated coastlines of China and Japan. The findings are sobering as China and Taiwan rebound from the devastating effects of super typhoon Nepartak last week.

The western boundary currents, which run along the eastern coasts of South Africa, Asia, Australasia, and South America, carry massive amounts of heat from the tropics poleward. The recent research [1] by a group of scientists with the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research [2] in Germany found they are strengthening, warming and moving poleward.

“They have been getting stronger and warmer since CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing,” said study author Hu Yang. “This heat must be released to the atmosphere. The most common way to release the heat is storms.”

Yang said storms like Nepartak, which took aim at Taiwan and the Chinese mainland last week, are likely to become more common in coming decades. Nepartak strengthened as it passed over the Kuriosho Current late last week, generating sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. The storm weakened slightly before making landfall [3] along the Taiwan coast, where it dropped up to 20 inches of rain in some spots.

“The coastal region of China, the western Pacific, is seeing much more warming than the global average, and it’s because of this intensification,” Hu said. “These currents will bring much more heat and precipitation in the future. China and Japan will suffer more warming than other regions.”

The study, published in June in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, looked at the Kuroshio Current, the Gulf Stream, the Brazil Current, the East Australian Current and the Agulhas Current, which are western branches of gyres that circulate around the perimeter of the world’s subtropical oceans—clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise the southern hemisphere. They are fast, much warmer than the surrounding ocean and have a “broad impact on the weather and climate over the adjacent mainland,” including the formation of intense storms, according to the study. They also play an important role in distributing heat globally.

Previous studies have suggested that the currents — with the exception of the Gulf Stream — have all strengthened in recent decades. By analyzing observational data from satellites and other sources (11 climate databases in all) from 1958 to 2001, along with the latest global-scale climate models, the researchers said they were able to show that long-term global warming is causing the simultaneous intensification and poleward shift of the currents.

The study found the currents are releasing 20 percent more heat than just 50 years ago, which is already beginning to have a significant impact on weather events along the eastern coasts of South Africa, Asia, Australasia, and South America. The researchers expect those areas to warm faster and become more stormy than other regions. In particular, Japan, China and Korea can all expect rapid warming and more storminess, especially in winter, said Gerrit Lohmann, a climate modeller at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute and co-author of the study.

The new findings are linked with other studies [4] showing that global warming is expanding and strengthening semi-stationary subtropical high-pressure systems. Those are domes of stable, warm and dry air that “largely determine the location of the world’s subtropical deserts, the zones of Mediterranean climate and the tracks of tropical cyclones,” The study says. As those high pressure domes strengthen, so do their clockwise winds that drive the boundary currents.

Michael Alexander, a researcher with NOAA’s Physical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colo., said, “Observations indicate that western boundary currents around the world, including the Gulf Stream are moving poleward (north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the southern Hemisphere). “The position and strength of these currents are partly controlled by the surface winds. So a change in the winds may influence the Gulf Stream,” said Alexander, who was not involved in the new study.

Yang said the Gulf Stream is the exception to the findings. That current is driven more by contrasts in water temperature and density than by wind. Several separate studies have suggested the Gulf Stream is likely to slow as Greenland’s melting ice sheets pour cold and fresh water into the North Atlantic.

“There are other studies looking at these Western Boundary Currents. Some researchers tried to put a cable on the ocean floor and tried to detect the volume transport. In our study, we observed the ocean surface and tried to track changes to these currents by the heat release,” he said.

The fact that they found very similar results for nearly all the western boundary currents across all ocean basins in the northern and southern hemispheres led the scientists to the conclusion that global warming is the root cause.

“It must be forcing from something that can influence all ocean basins,” he said. “It’s amazing to have such a result … the findings fit so perfectly in all these areas.”

The climate scientists said the rapidly changing currents will affect animals and plants in the nearby coastal regions. Many species will be forced to move to find suitable habitat, but some probably won’t be able, said Lohmann.

“In the coastal fishing grounds, the fish won’t be able to survive in their previous living environments. A change of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius will be too much for them,” Yang said.


Alberta, home to the tar sands, is about to see a renewable energy boom—and former oil field workers are spearheading the effort.

By Leyland Cecco

EDMONTON, Alberta—Randall Benson works his way through numbers, measurement, and the technique of properly installing anchors to a roof. Most in the class he is teaching are electricians and power engineers, so Benson is able to dive into specifics—micro-inverters, angling, spacing. His 10 students watch intently. José Gutiérrez made the three-hour trip from Calgary—the economic hub of Canada’s oil and gas industry—for Benson’s five-day course. Pasquale Auriemma, a master electrician with more than 15 years’ experience at the Surmont and Kearl tar sands projects near Fort McMurray, paid almost $1,700 to attend the workshop.

A hefty sum for a week of learning, but for most, it’s an investment aimed at no less than rescuing their professional careers amid the uncertainty plaguing the province’s energy industry. The men have spent years earning hefty wages—breaching six figures with overtime—in Canada’s fossil fuels industry. High oil prices kept them gainfully employed with the companies mining the region’s tar sands for the particularly carbon-rich form of crude oil that would have filled the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Benson’s class isn’t a matter of professional development for the men’s careers in the oil fields, however. They’re learning to install solar panels. A collapse in oil prices and a political turnabout have spurred a shift in Alberta: The region that for decades has been synonymous with dirty energy is poised for a renewable energy boom, and former tar sands workers—Benson is one—are sparking the change.

“I like to say I’ve worked two full-time jobs over the last 15 years—solar and advocacy,” Benson says after class. “Whatever you harvest from the earth, you have to give back.”

On the June afternoon inside the commercial warehouse where Benson runs Gridworks Energy Group, his solar installation company, students pair off to practice what they’ve learned of anchor placement on a model roof. As one group frets over fitting rails, Benson is easygoing: “My dad always said, ‘You’re not building a piano.’ ” When it comes to the installation of the blue solar modules, though, he becomes ruthlessly surgical; to maximize sun exposure, precision is key. “OK or good doesn’t cut it,” he scolds. “We’re overbuilding this so you can sleep well at night

The son of a Cree mother and a Métis father, Benson grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, hunting and fishing in the wilds around his home. Like many others in the region, he found employment in the northern tar sands shortly after graduating from high school.

“Everyone works in the tar sands. If you don’t, you work in an industry that services the tar sands,” says Benson. “I figured that was my lot in life.”

After years in the industry, Benson succumbed to a nagging feeling that followed him to work and back each day: He was betraying the values of respect for the earth his community had instilled in him from a young age. Mining the tar sands for oil has cleared or degraded almost 2 million acres of pristine boreal forest (a breeding ground the size of Florida for 30 percent of songbirds in the U.S.), according to data from Global Forest Watch, creating 19 square miles of toxic tailing ponds. And there is mounting evidence of negative health effects on locals from the mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals necessary for tar sands extraction.

One day in 1995, Benson picked up an issue of Home Power magazine by chance. An article on distributed solar electricity hooked him. He quit the oil industry and moved south, swapping one subset of the energy sector for another to open Gridworks. It wasn’t easy for Benson to look back: Wealth cascaded over the city he had left behind and into the pockets of his former colleagues as the tar sands industry in Alberta boomed. With the price of oil climbing, coffers filled and jobs were plentiful. He had gambled on an immature technology that couldn’t compete in an era of cheap power and boundless employment.

In 2008, he launched a program to train workers in installation of PV panels. He has since trained more than 1,000 electricians and power engineers to install solar panels as a way to augment their skill sets. With the recent oil collapse, interest is surging; enrollment has spiked 500 percent since 2011. “Every class is sold out. It’s overwhelming,” Benson says.

A population that not only has a large base of energy workers but also understands the value of energy resources, including the sun, is really going to adopt solar aggressively.

John Gormon, president, Canadian Solar Industries Association

Although the largest solar farm in Western Canada is a puny 2 megawatt installation—California’s largest has a capacity of 579 megawatts—solar power should see at least a 300-fold increase in installed capacity over the next 15 years, according to the Canadian Solar Industries Association. Even the province’s energy giants are on board; Suncor, the $43 billion multinational that pioneered tar sands exploration, has proposed three utility-scale solar projects totaling 240 megawatts. Enbridge, even as it was pushing a pipeline to deliver tar sands oil to British Columbia, made plans for solar farms of at least another 10 megawatts.

In November, the provincial government announced a goal to generate 30 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2030. The plan is ambitious; solar in the province generates just 8.5 megawatts of the 16,000 megawatts of electricity in the province. CanSIA is pushing solar as a big booster of employment in a province that has lost 63,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector, according to Statistics Canada, as the price of oil has fallen. CanSIA claims solar creates 10 times as many jobs as any other form of power generation and that if solar captures even a quarter of Alberta’s renewables portfolio, it will create more than 41,000 jobs, helping to offset the losses in oil and gas.

The Great Recession hit workers like Gutiérrez and Auriemma hard, but jobs came back quickly as demand for oil resurged. This time, though, the change in the oil industry appears to be what economists call secular, as opposed to cyclical. A glut of supply brought on by new horizontal hydraulic fracturing techniques sent prices sinking, leading to layoffs. The province’s economy, tied to a lofty commodities market, was devastated; according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 66,000 jobs in Alberta have been lost indirectly as a result of the layoffs in oil and gas. The decline in output has even strained the national GDP. Flames from wildfires rolling dangerously close to production facilities have stoked the anxiety of an industry caught in the doldrums, and the large-scale disruption has led to a mental health crisis, a rash of foreclosures, and drug turf wars.

Because of the high costs associated with extracting, preparing for shipment, and refining tar sands oil, prices need to settle close to $85 per barrel for companies to turn a profit on many projects (the break-even point was closer to $60 only a decade ago, but much of the cheap stuff has by now been taken out of the ground). Many newer entrants are swimming in debt and at risk of defaulting. Facilities lacking pipeline access use trucks or rail to transport the oil, bearing a much higher operating cost. Exploration has largely ceased, according to the International Energy Agency.

One company found that solar could reduce its expenses. Tar sands extraction is much more energy intensive than drilling for other forms of oil; installing solar panels, with their limitless supply of fuel, penciled out as a good investment for upstart company Imaginea Energy. It built arrays near well sites to power the pump jacks. The PV panels provide up to 80 percent of the energy, supplanting natural gas and coal, and don’t have much of an environmental impact on the site, given that it is already disturbed. “It allows us to produce our own electricity on the site. It lowers our operating cost because we don’t have to buy the power from the Alberta grid,” says Krzysztof Palka, chief strategist of sustainability, innovation, and operational leadership at Imaginea. Rather than buying an offset or paying a higher carbon tax, he says, “we would actually like to reduce our emissions and air pollution.”

Imaginea benefits from Alberta’s exceptionally clear weather. If Canadians outside the province were jealous during the boom times that Alberta sits on the bulk of the country’s oil supply, they’ll be dismayed to know the province is also the country’s sunniest. Calgary sees more than 330 sunny days a year.

That and the supply of skilled labor brought about by the oil industry layoffs together make Alberta ideal for growth of the solar industry, says John Gorman, president and CEO of CanSIA. “A population that not only has a large base of energy workers but also understands the value of energy resources, including the sun, is really going to adopt solar aggressively,” he says.

In a few regions, solar power has reached grid parity—the point at which the cost of power generation is the same as that from other sources—even without incentives. But competing against low-cost natural gas and coal means solar in Alberta has faced an uphill struggle. Until recently, half the province’s energy needs came from coal. Mines and the smokestacks at the generators the mines fueled are as much a part of the landscape as cattle and canola. Today, a full two decades after Benson bet on solar, circumstances have aligned to create a demand for his and Gorman’s product.

A little over a year ago, Alberta elected the New Democratic Party to a majority in the province’s legislature, a sharp turn left for the historically conservative province. Premier Rachel Notley’s government sped up the province’s schedule for retiring coal-fired power plants by more than a decade. On Jan. 1, 2017, the government will start to levy a $20-per-tonne tax on carbon, ratcheting up to $30 by 2018. Its 2016 budget announced $3.4 billion in funding for renewable energy projects.

Meanwhile, silicon-based PV modules dropped in price from $30 per watt to less than $4 per watt in just five years.

Alberta is positioning solar to be an economical power source for both utility and residential projects, with details to be released in November. Gorman says his organization has “very, very high confidence now, because we’ve been in discussions with [the provincial government] for a long time,” that distributed solar—panels on people’s rooftops—will see a lot of growth in Alberta and that the province will be “also a significant player over the coming years at the utilities-scale side.”

As of now, the province has little experience with solar. What it has is plenty of laborers with applicable skills. Oil and gas is heavily reliant on a large pool of skilled tradespeople—pipe fitters, boilermakers, welders, and electricians who labored in the tar sands alongside rig workers—but many of even these skilled workers are now jobless and could stay that way until oil prices more than double. Gorman and others say they can easily transfer their skills to renewable energy.

“For a lot of these industrial trades, very little retraining is needed,” says Lliam Hildebrand, a fourth-generation boilermaker. “It just comes down to having the blueprints and the manufacturing capacity.” Last year he started a nonprofit group called Iron & Earth. It advocates for the government and the private sector to retrain oil workers for jobs in renewable energy. Hildebrand views the transition as a “move into a new industry that’s not going to be as susceptible to the boom-and-bust cycles as the oil and gas industry.”

Originally from British Columbia’s rain-soaked West Coast, Hildebrand spent much of his working life in the tar sands, by far the largest employer of the skilled trades in the country, according to Statistics Canada. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Hildebrand, like Benson, was frustrated in his attempts to find work that aligned with his views. That led him, too, to renewable energy.

Hildebrand is convinced workers will move from oil and coal to the solar industry as it makes up an ever-larger portion of Alberta’s energy supply. “The individuals impacted by the closure of the coal are the same constituency that currently works in the tar sands,” says Hildebrand. “As a boilermaker, a lot of my coworkers rely on these maintenance contracts at these coal plants.”

While Benson and Hildebrand have always thought of themselves as greens, other members of Iron & Earth, like Joe Bacsu, aren’t similarly motivated. They just want to maintain the quality of life afforded them by decades of well-paying blue-collar labor in oil and coal, and they see solar installation as a less demanding job. “I’m a third-generation boilermaker, and I know my dad wishes he could have worked in a different environment,” says Bacsu of the intensely physical work in coal-fired power plants.

Iron & Earth has been pushing for 1,000 workers like Bacsu to be trained and then placed on 100 new solar installation projects. Within weeks of the announcement of the goal, 400 tar sands workers had signed up. “Most of them want to continue working in the tar sands but want to have the ability to also work in renewable energy,” says Hildebrand. “I think a lot of these guys see it as prudence.”

Auriemma, the master electrician in Benson’s class, confirms that view. “Solar is just another resource. I never look at it in terms of getting rid of oil or replacing it. It’s just another ace in your hand. It’s just a way of diversifying,” says.


But here’s what’s really shocking: water and energy are connected and highly interdependent. Simply put, we need water for our energy systems and we need energy systems for our water. Here are some quick facts to prove it:

  • Ninety percent of global electricity is generated by boiling water to create steam that spins turbines. It’s water-intense!
  • In the United States, more freshwater (41 percent) is used to cool power plants than for any other use.
  • About 8 percent of global energy generation is used for pumping, treating, and transporting water.
  • By 2035, global energy consumption is expected to increase by 50 percent, increasing water consumption by 85 percent.

The Water Footprint of Energy

How much freshwater is required to produce one unit of energy?

Natural gas, coal, crude oil, photovoltaics, wind – every type of energy requires a different amount of water to generate power. But here’s the thing: fossil fuel power plants are super thirsty. For example, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “a typical coal plant with a once-through cooling system withdraws between 70 and 180 billion gallons of water per year and consumes 0.36 to 1.1 billion gallons of that water.” To give some perspective, the water withdrawn is enough to fill between 105,991 and 272,549 Olympic-sized swimming pools – every year. And there are thousands of coal plants around the world.

By comparison, wind energy requires virtually no water to operate, and only minimal water for manufacturing and site development. In fact, a new report found that solar photovoltaic systems and wind turbines consume about 0.1 – 14 percent of the water (to generate 1 MWh) that a coal plant would over their respective lifetimes.

Renewable energy offers a double whammy of climate solutions. Reducing our dependence on dirty energy will significantly reduce the greenhouse gases we put into our atmosphere from the power sector. Clean energy technologies also tend to use a tiny fraction of the water dirty energy does – allowing us to better cope with climate impacts we’re already experiencing, like drought. In fact, in 2014, wind energy alone saved drought-stricken California 2.5 billion gallons of water.

The Energy Footprint of Water

How much energy is required to supply one unit of freshwater?

We’re not sure if you’ve noticed lately, but humans need water to survive.  When getting water (or disposing of it) is instant and simple – through a showerhead, faucet, hose, or toilet – it’s easy to forget that it takes a lot of energy to get it to us, as well as to heat, cool, and clean it.

Another way to think about the energy impact of water is as its carbon footprint. Water supply and disposal systems require vast amounts of energy to operate, and most of our energy systems still rely on conventional dirty sources.

In fact, according to River Network, the carbon emissions generated from the energy needed to move, treat, and heat water in the US is about 290 million metric tons a year, or the combined annual greenhouse gas emissions of Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

As we continue to move away from dirty fossil fuels, our water systems will become less and less carbon-intense. It’s a no-brainer: using less water and producing less carbon is better for our planet and for people.


Report reveals unusually frank assessment of Canada’s energy future, which it says will be shaped by falling costs of renewables as well as pollution pressures.

Canada's reliance on fossil fuels, particularly from the oil sands, is questioned by a government report

Canada’s reliance on its fossil fuel industry, particularly the carbon-intensive production from Alberta’s oil sands, prompts and unusually frank warning from a government think tank. Credit: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute/Shell Albian oil sands site

A Canadian government think tank is calling for the country to make a seismic shift away from its economic dependence on oil production or risk being left behind as the world moves rapidly away from fossil fuel use.

The draft report, by Policy Horizons Canada, is an unusually frank assessment by a government agency on the uncertain future of fossil fuels, especially considering the large role that oil plays in Canada’s economy. The report is titled “Canada in a Changing Energy Global Energy Landscape,” and says that Canada should begin to adjust its energy priorities to prepare for the significant changes in the energy landscape expected to occur within the next 10-15 years.

The powerful drivers pushing Canada in this direction are the falling costs of renewable energy, led by wind and solar; the increasing proportion of electricity in global energy use; and the pressures on countries to grow their economies while slashing greenhouse gas emissions and dangerous air pollution.

“In combination, these drivers could lead to renewable-sourced electricity replacing fossil fuels as the dominant form of primary energy used in the global economy for most industrial, commercial and personal activity,” the report said.

The authors, citing dozens of scientific papers and articles, said they foresee a near future in which the world’s power plants, factories, industries and vehicles are increasingly powered by wind and solar electricity. That may happen much faster than predicted, “significantly disrupting fossil fuel markets.” And while Canada “would be relatively well placed to take advantage of an electricity-based industrial ecosystem,” the report said, the repercussions on its petroleum assets and economy would be vast.

Alberta has abundant oil—nearly all of it in tar sands—and ambitious plans to develop it. Tar sands production has boomed since 2008, doubling to more than 2 million barrels a day. And the latest report by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that number will grow by an additional 1.55 million barrels a day by 2030 (which is scaled back from previous estimates, but would still nearly double the current output).

According to the Policy Horizons Canada report, the “plausible” rise of cheap renewable electricity “would seem to recommend against long term investments in oil and gas production, refinement, and distribution infrastructure.”

“The shift to electric cars could result in oil demand peaking sooner than forecast,” it said, while competition for the energy markets of the future could be won by those with clean energy technologies, not by those with vast deposits of fossil energy.

Canada’s oil could also face stigma in energy markets because of its high greenhouse gas emissions as pressure mounts to discriminate between fossil fuel products based on environmental impacts, forcing its producers to sell at the bottom with implications for tax revenue. The oil and gas industry was the largest single source of tax revenue from 2008-12, generating $23.3 billion, according to National Resources Canada.

At the very least, the report recommends, Canada’s government “should ensure that the risks of further investments in oil and gas infrastructure be borne by private sector interests rather than taxpayers.”

What’s Behind the Tectonic Shift?

The report, dated March 3 and marked “draft for discussion,” was made public after a May access to information request filed by CBC News. Policy Horizons Canada is a “strategic foresight organization” within the Public Service of Canada.

The panel’s assessment is based largely on the prediction that electricity is on its way to becoming the predominant source of end-use energy consumption in the world.

The report cites statistics that while energy demand from all sources is expected to rise by 37 percent between 2012 and 2040, world demand for electricity demand is projected to increase by 80 percent in the same time span. Driving that shift is the rapidly growing middle class in developing countries led by China, which is increasing its consumption of electricity as people shift from burning wood to electric appliances for light, heating and cooling, and cooking.

The emerging digital economy and needed data storage will also demand more electricity.

“There are also signals that suggest transportation may electrify more quickly than expected” over the next 15 years, the report said.

Increasingly, much of that electricity will be generated by renewables. Many types of renewable-based electricity generation are already cheaper without subsidies than generation by fossil fuel, the report said. And “those that are not are likely to be so within 10 years.” That’s in part because climate change, air pollution and other health and environmental costs will increasingly be factored in to energy supply and consumption decisions by power utilities and companies, adding to clean fuels’ cost advantage.

The report cites as evidence of this transformation the trend of major non-energy companies investing significant sums in renewables as costs decrease and consumers pressure them to act on climate change. IKEA has announced investments of $565 million in wind energy and $100 million in solar energy over the next five years, while Apple has announced a $850 million investment to build a 280-megawatt solar farm in California.

Meanwhile, battery technologies will also drop in price and evolve to allow continuous supply of wind and solar, allowing renewables to replace old coal plants as they are retired  in developed and emerging economies.

Developing countries thought of as potential future consumers of oil, gas and other fossil fuels may “leapfrog” over building a fossil fuel infrastructure and move immediately to clean energy to build their economies, paralleling the rise of cellular phone technology, the report said.

“There’s so much in here that’s a good summary of emerging trends within the energy sector around the world,” said Tim Gray, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Defence Canada. “I think that the observations are consistent with what we’re seeing in emerging markets around emerging energy, and in commodity markets around fossil fuels.”

Two Paths for Canada

The report lays out two possible scenarios for Canada’s energy future in this new landscape. In the first, “Canada continues a narrative that it has energy super power status based on its petroleum reserves,” and it resists movements to divest from fossil fuels or differentiate oil in markets based on environmental impacts. The result is that Canadian oil companies find themselves selling oil to the bottom of the market and losing revenue. The U.S., the main buyer of Canadian oil, would require steep discounts to offset things like potential carbon taxes.

Under this scenario, Canada would risk damaging its international “brand” as its products and services would be considered high-carbon and “dirty” in the global marketplace.

In the second, Canada expands its production of clean electricity and becomes a hub for low-carbon manufacturing and energy-intensive industries like data centers. The country’s products and services are recognized for their low-carbon content. It becomes a climate leader, and continues research into using oil sands for alternative fuels.

According to the report, this would mean that instead of resisting the trends toward renewables, Canada leverages them. Currently, most of the oil produced in Canada is produced for export to the United States. In addition to oil it could export more of its clean energy, the authors said. Already, Canada produces a vast 80 percent of its electricity from hydro, nuclear, solar and wind, according to reports. “Canada has not only sufficient electricity for its domestic needs but capacity to export nearly 10 percent of its production,” the report said.

According to Chris Bataille, an energy economist for the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, the report did not address an important detail. “Everything makes sense to me only if there’s strong policy,” said Bataille. “And by strong policy I mean there needs to be a carbon price of $50 to $100 dollars a ton and possibly even more. Then all of it makes more sense. As it is, it’s a bit overenthusiastic.”

The report also did not address whether this shift is politically feasible. The development of Alberta’s tar sands became an economic cornerstone during the administration of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who abandoned the Kyoto Protocol and led a dismantling of environmental regulations. Justin Trudeau of the centrist Liberal Party ousted Harper in last year’s federal election running on a platform of greater support for climate action. He has stopped short of calling for any curtailment in the expansion of the tar sands production.

At the same time, Alberta elected a new prime minister, Rachel Notley, of the leftist New Democratic Party. Last November, she unveiled a provincial energy plan that included a tax on carbon, a cap on oil sands emissions, a phasing out of coal-fired electricity and an emphasis on wind power. But the oil sands emission cap was set at 100 megatons, which will allow for some continued expansion of oil sands extraction.

Canada is also going through a Federal-Provincial-Territorial energy discussion that is looking at creating a pan-Canadian climate plan to meet or exceed the climate target set in Canada’s pledge to the Paris climate agreement. Natural resources remain under provincial—not federal—management, so these discussions take on added significance.

“Canada’s energy strategy is very much in flux,” said Erin Flanagan, director of federal policy at the Canada-based Pembina Institute, a nonpartisan energy think tank. “The new government tends to talk about Canada’s obligation to reduce emissions and to live up to challenge of climate change, and often references that the environment and the economy go together. What that means for domestic production is to be determined.”


By Chris Mooney


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