Oil exploration 'could damage climate'


A drive to get oil from unconventional fossil fuel sources in the face of soaring prices could have catastrophic effects on the Earth’s climate, a report warned today.

With oil prices hitting record highs, the extraction of tar sands and oil shale is an increasingly attractive option.

But according to a study by WWF and the Co-operative Financial Services, the fuels are massively energy intensive - creating as much as eight times as many carbon emissions in their production as conventional oil.

If all the estimated 1,115 billion barrels of the recoverable fuels found in Canada and the US were to be extracted, the report estimates it would release 980 billion tonnes of CO2.

According to the study, the emissions could push atmospheric levels of CO2 well past the point at which it is estimated would trigger global temperature rises of more than 2C, causing dangerous climate change and putting the Earth at risk of mass extinction of species.

The researchers said oil giants including Shell and BP are planning to invest $125 billion Canadian dollars in the fuels by 2015 and intending to produce hundreds of thousands of barrels a day by 2020.

WWF and the Co-operative are calling for a global halt to the licensing of the production of the fuels, legislation to prevent them being sold in the UK and an investment in renewable energy.

Tar or oil sands, found in large quantities in the Canadian province of Alberta where they are already being extracted, are made up of oil trapped in a mixture of water, sand and clay.

Oil shale is sedimentary rock which produces petroleum-like liquids when heated. The largest known deposits are in the US with other significant reserves in countries including Australia, China, Congo, Estonia and Italy.

The refining process of these fuels is energy and water intensive, requiring the use of fuels such as gas to manufacture the petrol and creating toxic lakes, the report said.

WWF also warns that mining and production of the tar sands in Canada will damage massive areas of forest - which act as carbon sinks - and the wildlife such as caribou they contain.

Oil sands cover 140,000 square kilometres of Canadian boreal forest, an area larger than England, and production also damages unique wetlands and fen areas and puts local indigenous people at risk, the environmental charity said.

The report’s author James Leaton, senior policy officer at WWF-UK, said: “Unconventional fuel sources may seem attractive in the short term, but ultimately the environmental and economic costs are unthinkable.

“In addition to the rising costs to consumers and businesses from high oil prices, the environment is paying at both a local and global level.

“The solution is to develop alternatives, such as renewable energy, rather than continue to indulge our addiction to oil.”