The Conference Board of Canada (not BoingBoing's favourite think tank) has released a report that says, well, yes, there is a lot of CO2 that comes out of the oil sands, but:
a) on a "wheel to wheel" basis it is not that much worse than any other kind of fuel (because the bulk of the CO2 comes out of the tailpipe)
b) More growth in Canadian CO2 production came from the shift over the last ten years in Canadian tastes in transport, the switch to pickups, light trucks and SUVs, than actually came from the tar sands.
So why is everyone picking on poor old Alberta and the tar sands?
Part of the answer is tactical. It is much easier to pursue and criticize a few private oil sands producers operating in a neighbouring democratic nation, than to criticize state oil companies operating in weak democratic or authoritarian nations that are far away. More fundamentally, frustrating production by a few firms is easier than convincing millions of consumers to change their lifestyles and driving habits and thereby reduce end demand for oil products. But if GHG emissions are to be stabilized and reduced, action must be taken both by energy producers and by energy consumers. This will be as true in China as it is in the United States and Canada.
The Conference Board also points out that the US is going to get its oil from somewhere, and it might as well be from those nice Canadians.
A core truth in assessing the future of the oil sands is that U.S. and Canadian oil demand will be satisfied from somewhere--and the oil sands have some key advantages as a preferred supplier. Although extraction costs are higher than are those for most conventional sources, the oil sands require very little exploration expenditures, very little exploration risk (i.e., no dry holes), their location is known, and they are a more stable and accessible source of U.S. and Canadian oil supply than many other global sources (such as Venezuela, Nigeria, or parts of the Middle East). Not surprisingly, Canada is already the largest supplier to the United States at 19 per cent of the oil import market.
In the end, one of their arguments is persuasive: most of the CO2 comes out of the tailpipe, and improving the efficiency of vehicles or finding alternative means of transport that gets cars off the road is a lot more important (three or four times as important according to their calculations) than shutting down the oil sands.
A full range of policy tools will need to be examined and utilized to reduce global energy consumption, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, higher vehicle fuel standards, stronger energy standards for buildings, urban re-design, investment in public transit, and other forms of intervention.
In other words, blame the addict instead of the pusher.