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Editorial comment

When commentators review key moments in 2009, the 15th United Nations Climate Change Summit, which will be hosted in Copenhagen later this month, could well be the defining event of the year. Billed by the environmental lobby as the ‘last chance saloon,’ its objective is to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and forge a global deal on CO2 emissions, ultimately aimed at preventing a worldwide rise in temperatures by more than 2 °C, compared with preindustrial levels.

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Scientists have determined this to be the tipping point for irreversible damage that if ignored will surely lead to environmental disaster – floods, droughts, famines and the like. Achieving any such agreement could not be more ambitious or indeed contentious and many believe it is doomed to failure before the event has even begun. Certainly the signing of any deal looks improbable until the US has secured its own domestic legislation for a carbon cap-and-trade regime. However, with the Senate embroiled in health care reform legislation, this looks far from likely. In fact it begs the question as to whether it is worth the carbon footprint of sending 200 000 officials from 192 countries to an event which is unlikely to succeed in the first place, but that would perhaps be a biased viewpoint. The likely outcome from Copenhagen will be a firm commitment to vigorously pursue emissions reductions over the coming years without any formal agreement on the details. Not an agreement, but a continuance of the uncertainty over global carbon regulation that will surely persist for many years to come.

Whatever the outcome, the debate surrounding greenhouse emissions will have profound implications for the energy industry as a whole. Energy use, be it oil, gas, coal or other variations of fossil fuels, account for over two thirds of manmade CO2 emissions. Any agreement to reduce emissions will therefore be keenly felt across the industry. None more so perhaps, than in the oilsands of Alberta, Canada, the very viability of which hangs in the balance over CO2 emissions. Requiring huge amounts of energy to process oilsands from its raw state into a usable crude, typically one barrel for every three it extracts, in contrast to 100 barrels from a typical Middle Eastern well, this is an area of the industry very much in the spotlight. However, as Christophe de Margerie, Chief Executive of Total, France, is reported as saying, policy makers in Copenhagen cannot be allowed to ignore energy security, ‘Don’t go to Copenhagen only with your concern about the environment. We also have a concern over energy assess. If you take only one [concern with you], we are dead and we don’t want to die’. Strongly put, but in the context of oilsands at least, pertinent. World energy demand is anticipated to double by 2035. Renewable energy will not be sufficient to meet this increased demand level by this date and with new oil and gas reserves becoming increasingly difficult to access politically, geograhically and environmentally, oilsands represents an abundant resource of crude oil reserves, second only in size to those in Saudi Arabia, in a politically stable location. Not only this, but the alternative for electricity generation, the burning of coal, actually produces considerably more greenhouse emissions.

Whether the Copenhagen summit becomes an historic watershed moment remains to be seen. What is clear, is that for the energy industry, the environmental battle is only just beginning…

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