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Wildfires Disrupt Oil Sands, Exposing Climate Risk

While importing oil from Canada has been controversial in the U.S., the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray have served to underscore a larger issue: Natural disasters exacerbated by climate change can threaten major natural resources.

The wildfires in Alberta forced tar sands production to be cut by about a third, or 800,000 barrels per day in May, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data published this week. Alberta Energy Regulator data show that production averaged about 2.5 million barrels per day in March. Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the U.S, supplying about about 41 percent of U.S. crude oil imports, most of which comes from the Alberta oil sands.

A wildfire burns near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 7.
Credit: Premier of Alberta/flickr

“Will climate change make the oil sands more vulnerable?” said Warren Mabee, associate director of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “The answer is possibly yes. With disruptions to rainfall and snowfall patterns, earlier fire seasons due to hotter and drier springs, and possibly with additional forest growth due to the changing climate — think more CO2 and warmer years — providing more fuel, the chances of forest fires will rise.”

As one of the most carbon-intensive forms of fossil fuel on earth, the Canadian tar sands, or oil sands, are a major and growing contributor to global warming. They were to be carried to refineries in the U.S. via the Keystone XL Pipeline, which the Obama administration killed last year partly because of the tar sands’ contribution to climate change.

The wildfires ignited May 1 amid unusually hot and dry conditions that are indicative of climate change. Very little snow fell during the winter in western Canada, and warm temperatures quickly dried out forests and grasses, making the region a tinderbox.

The number of early season wildfires has been growing in the northern latitudes as the annual wildfire season grows longer and boreal forests burn at unprecedented rates. Northern regions are warming faster than the rest of the globe as greenhouse gases trap more and more heat in the atmosphere, and scientists expect warmer and drier weather to make conditions ripe for more wildfires.

“I think this is one of the examples that illustrates profound vulnerability to all the systems we depend upon,” said Jason Funk, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I’m starting to think of climate change as this indiscriminate disrupter of the systems we depend upon.”

About 2,400 Fort McMurray homes were destroyed in the fires, which are still burning out of control and have so far scorched about 1.5 million acres of eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan.

Scientists say the climate threat to the tar sands mines could worsen with time.

An oil sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Credit: Kris Krüg/flickr

Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University who was among 100 scientists calling for a halt to a Canadian oil sands expansion because of their effect on the climate, said fossil fuel producers may now be awakening to the threat of climate change.

“Whether it’s unprecedented wildfires running rampant in the tar sands region of Canada, or monster hurricanes striking oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, even fossil fuel extraction is no longer safe from the aggravating impacts of climate change,” Mann said.

Though the tar sands mines themselves did not burn, oil sands pipelines and energy companies operating nearby were shut down, and workers there were forced to flee as the inferno raced toward toward them. The entire city of Fort McMurray, the hub of the Canadian oil sands industry, evacuated — the largest wildfire evacuation Canadian history.

Oil sands production is expected to recover slowly following the blazes, taking until the beginning of July to return to pre-fire levels, EIA analyst Laura Singer said.

Neither the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers nor the Alberta Energy Regulator responded to requests for comment.

Mabee said the biggest lesson to be learned from the wildfires is that large, concentrated and centralized energy production facilities, such as the tar sands, are vulnerable to disruption.

“What we need is probably something more like the internet — a decentralized extensive energy production system that can’t be heavily disrupted by a single event,” Mabee said.

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