A study published this morning has been widely heralded as a clean bill of health for tarsands oil, because it shows—unsurprisingly—that burning the planet’s huge coal reserves would do even more damage.

But even a quick read of the data demonstrates that there’s more than enough carbon in the planet’s various tarsands formations to cause huge damage. If we burn through the know quantities of tarsands oil, that alone will raise the planet’s temperature by .4 degree Celsius—which is about exactly how much we’ve already raised the planet’s temperature by burning everything we’ve burned since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

That is to say, the tarsands alone would provide half again as much warming as we’ve already experience—a warming severe enough so far that summer sea ice in the Arctic has declined by 40% and the atmosphere has grown steadily wetter leading to vicious cycles of drought and flood.

It’s completely true, of course, that we can’t burn the coal either—which is why we’ve worked to stop coal ports along the Pacific, mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and huge new coal-fired plants as far away as Kosovo and South Africa. We’ll keep up that work.

But we’ll keep fighting the tarsands too—because this is oil that should clearly stay in the ground. Today’s study is akin to saying: “True, smoking six packs a day is going to kill you. But if you want to make certain you die, smoke a hundred packs a day. And if you really want to make sure you die tomorrow, lie down in front of a train.”

p.s. Here’s a quote from NASA’s Dr. James Hansen on the recent report: “The argument that the currently known amount of carbon in the tar sands pit is small compared to the total fossil fuels burned in two centuries is fallacious and misleading — every single source, even Saudi Arabia, is small compared to the total. If we once get hooked on tar sands and set up infrastructure, the numbers will grow as mining capabilities increase. Tar sands are particularly egregious, because you get relatively less energy per unit carbon emitted and there is associated environmental damage in the mining.”

Photo Credit: Christine Irvine