Wednesday, March 01, 2017

An argument for continuing to develop Canada's oil sands

Much of the outcry against Canada's oil sands development, and the pipelines they necessitate, revolves around the allegation that, even by the already poor standards of oil extraction in general, the oil sands are "dirty", both in the sense of environmentally polluting and in terms of their carbon footprint.
So I was a little taken aback to read an article in today's Globe and Mail suggesting that perhaps the oil sands are not the environmental anathema they are so often portrayed as. This was not just some badly-argued and ill-researched trash thrown off by Margaret Wente to apparently justify her own questionable views on the subject. It was a well-reasoned and legitimate piece in the business section of the paper by a couple of established figures - Western Canada insiders with a local axe to grind, to be sure, representing as they do the Canada West Foundation, but technically non-partisan and evidence-based - so I have to take the article seriously.
It argues that the oil from Canada's oil sands is actually no dirtier, and in many cases substantially cleaner, than many other sources of oil, including much of the oil extracted around the world using conventional extraction techniques. On a "well-to-wheel" basis, the average barrel of oil from the oil sands of Alberta apparently now emits only 6-9% more greenhouse gases (GHG) than the average barrel of oil consumed in the USA, much less than was the case just 10 years ago. And as newer projects come online with the stricter controls that have been adopted, this will only decrease further. Crude oil imported from places like Venezuela, Nigeria and the Midle East is typically substantially more GHG-intensive than the average, and the Canadian oil sands can now more than hold their own against this competition.
Therefore, the article concluded, it actually makes environmental sense (in that it would lead to a net reduction in GHGs) for the USA to replace imported oil from places like Venezuela and Nigeria with Canadian oil from up-to-date, cleaner oil-sands projects, and efforts to "keep the oil sands in the ground" are misguided because that would actually increase global GHG emissions. For the same reasons, it is no longer appropriate for environmentalists to protest pipelines from the oil sands for climate change reasons.
Now, all of this flies in the face of what I, and probably most concerned environmentalists, have believed for some years now. It certainly provides some food for thought, even if the authors' sources and calculations are a few percentage points on the optimistic side. Time to re-think the oil sands, or red herring?

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