These days, many big numbers are being thrown around these days regarding the Tar Sands. It’s said, for instance, that there may be a total of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil or something like it in the sands of Northern Alberta. That’s a lot of oil, but what does it mean in terms of our climate?

Well, according to Wikipedia, there’s around 3 000 gigatons, or three trillion metric tons of carbon in our atmosphere, making up around 390 parts per million (by volume) of our atmosphere. As far as global warming is concerned, 350ppm is considered (probably) safe, if we’re to keep warming under two degrees centigrade over the next century. If, instead, we chose to see what happens if take a more apocalyptic route, what would that require?

Say you wanted, for some reason, to add a trillion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. This would add roughly another third to global CO2 levels, pushing them to around 520ppm (390×4/3), and twice what is needed to push us into the 450ppm “danger zone”. This would be a larger increase than we’ve seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution (~280ppm), and would likely threaten to end civilization as we know it. So, ethics aside, what would that take?

Well, by EPA estimates, burning a barrel of oil yields 0.43 metric tons of C02. At that rate, it would take about 2.3 trillion barrels of oil to achieve this devious goal. Not exactly cheap, at today’s prices.

1,000,000,000,000 metric tons / 0.43 tons/barrel = 2,325,581,395,348.837209302 barrels

In order to cut costs (super-villainy gets expensive), you could turn to a cheaper source of crude. Thanks to the dreaded “bitumen bubble”, Canada’s Tar Sands exports are selling for a great discount these days! In addition, they require much more carbon per barrel to process due to their viscous nature. A barrel of “synthetic crude” can require from about 60-180kg of emissions, compared to 24-35kg for processing conventional crude. If we make a conservative estimate of 100kg of CO2 (0.1 metric tons), that pushes the emissions per barrel to around .53 metric tons. At that rate, you could save yourself almost half a trillion barrels, bringing the total down, almost, to a somewhat familiar number…

1,000,000,000,000 / 0.53 = 1,886,792,452,830.188679245

Or just under 1.9 trillion barrels. See the problem?

We can only hope there’s no mad scientists lurking with CO2-powered death rays bent on destroying the world. The unfortunate thing is that if one wanted to, they’d hardly have to lift a finger. We are already hard at work extracting and burning these fossil fuels as fast as we can manage for reasons which aren’t a lot more noble. The “development” of these “resources” has become a national priority, eclipsing every other economic, social or political goal. Environmental laws, First Nations treaty rights, free speech, manufacturing industries, scientific research – all of these have become second-tier concerns in the rush to support and expand Tar Sands production. In return, we’re told, there could be billions or even trillions in royalties and revenues awaiting us, an awfully tempting offer in times of austerity. Keep these numbers in mind when politicians and industry officials are promising you the world, as we can’t sell billions of barrels of oil without the reasonable expectation that they’re going to be used.

Of course, this is about as simplistic and cartoonish as anything resembling a climate model can get, but I wanted to break it down to middle-school math for a reason. There’s a lot of very complex ideas and numbers being thrown around, and the resulting confusion has only served to stoke the (unfortunate) controversies. We need to bring these numbers down to a level people can grasp, instead of asking them to choose between complex, projected scenarios. I encourage you to run these numbers yourself, and experiment with others. Computers, after all, are nothing if not glorified calculators, and the internet a giant database of numbers. We can’t be afraid to check the numbers ourselves, once in a while, if only to put dire, contrasting claims in context.

To go into a little more detail, with present-day technologies, only a little over a tenth of Alberta’s Tar Sands is considered “recoverable”. That’s likely to grow, but it still only represents a dozen parts per million if. What’s important to remember is that we only need around 60ppm more until we hit the 450ppm level, and so this could easily get us a 20% or more of the way there. While that’s (probably) not apocalyptic on its own, there’s always the problematic issue of every other emission on the planet.

Alberta isn’t the only place where massive new “unconventional” oil resources are bursting onto the scene. As conventional crude oil reserves start to enter a serious decline, a desperate search for replacements is taking place. Alberta is pioneering Tar Sand extraction techniques, but it’s far from the only place such bitumen is found (Russia, Venezuela and Saskatchewan come to mind). There’s also Shale Oil – deep rock formations seeping with oil or gas which can be “fracked” out. Then there’s Oil Shale – rocks made partly out of very heavy petrochemicals which can be melted out or burned directly (the dirtiest of the bunch). Adding to these, new technologies are making deep, offshore oil accessible, perhaps soon in the Arctic as well. For Coal, mining now often demolishes entire mountains for their fuel-rich interiors. This is the real legacy of Peak Oil – increasing costs, diminishing returns and a widespread lowering of standards.

It’s crunch time. Last year we witnessed a record setting drought cut crop yields, a near-total melt of the Greenland ice sheet and a superstorm which sunk parts of NYC. Let’s cut the bullshit – either we’re serious about climate change, or we’re not. The two-faced duplicity inherent in talking about it while embracing petro-development on an unprecedented scale is both offensive and dangerous. As long as these resources exist, there will be promises of fantastic profits. As other supplies dwindle and economies fumble, they’ll only look more enticing. We’d be wise, though, not to forget the greatest value and service provided by the Tar Sands. With close to a trillion metric tons of carbon locked up underground, they may be single-handedly holding off an apocalypse.

Until we choose otherwise, that is.