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Can the oil sands come clean?


November 1, 2008
by Kim Laudrum

Suncor’s oil sands coker tower (top) heat the bitumen and removes the petroleum coke.

Photo: Suncor Energy

Anyone who has perched on the tailgate of a pick-up truck late at night along the highway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton to watch the northern lights dance across an indigo sky, knows Alberta is a beautiful place. Pristine mountains to the southwest, golden acres of canola farms, abundant wildlife and all that sky—it represents the natural beauty Canada is known for around the world.

But it’s also on the environmentalist list as a hot spot of ecological devastation and soaring greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Dubbed the “new Kuwait” for its known retrievable oil reserves—second only to Saudi Arabia—Alberta’s oil sands are experiencing a modern day oil rush. Major international oil companies—Shell, Suncor, Chevron, Exxon, Imperial and many others—have invested $100 billion. Today, the oil sands produce 1.3 million barrels of heavy crude oil per day and production is expected to reach 3.5 million barrels per day in just three years. In 20 years, Canada is expected to be one of the world’s top oil producers, exporting up to 5 million barrels a day.

The problem, say environmentalists, is that extracting oil from the tar sands—an unconventional and low-grade source—is energy intensive. It requires the equivalent of one barrel of oil in energy to extract six barrels of oil from bitumen, the sandy tar that’s mixed with the crude oil. Because of the extra energy required, oil sands mining creates two to three times the amount of GHGs that conventional oil produces, something even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) acknowledges.

Politically, Canada hasn’t earned much respect for reneging on its Kyoto targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We produce 2% of the world’s total GHGs and of that the oil sands represents 8%, says a CAPP spokesperson. That 8% is expected to increase to 12% by 2020 thanks mainly to increased production, predicts Simon Dyer, director of the oil sands program at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental organization. In 2006, Canada’s total GHGs were at a level almost 30% above its original Kyoto reduction targets, according to Canada’s department of Natural Resources, energy sector. Total GHGs in Canada in 2006 decreased slightly from 2005 and 2003 levels. But all three western provinces are expected to experience the largest relative increases in GHGs between 1990 and 2010—BC emissions are expected to increase 38%, Alberta and Saskatchewan 40 per cent.