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Oil sands: not so dirty

You’d think by the amount of global bad press and delusional opposition directed at Alberta and its oil sands that the development of these massive energy reserves is primarily responsible for the rising temperatures plaguing our poor planet.


May 13, 2011
by Joe Terrett, Editor

Alberta’s oil sands are becoming a global pariah. Bitumen is dismissively
described as “dirty oil” by the Europeans who want to officially designate it
as less desirable than the much cleaner oil they buy from suppliers in the
Middle East, or Libya; and greenies in the US are doing their best to turn off one
of the taps to their market.

They focus their ire on Alberta’s black gold because extracting it from the earth is more energy intensive than conventional oil extraction and the bitumen has to be
upgraded before it’s made into fuel for our carbon-emitting vehicles and homes.

This really upsets the carbon accountants and green warriors who would like to see activity in the oil sands halted or at least slowed down. Their efforts to do so include an attempt to hang up the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas claiming a high likelihood of environmental damage along its 700-kilometre path.

You’d think by the amount of global bad press and delusional opposition directed at Alberta and its oil sands that the development of these massive energy reserves is primarily responsible for the rising temperatures plaguing our poor planet.

Well, they’re not.

Yes, there are serious concerns about climate change that must be considered.
Alberta is responsible for expending far more greenhouse gases through industrial emissions, either by carbon-fired electricity or oil sands development, than is its fair share (based on population). And it is home to the country’s top four emitters, making it a generous contributor to Canada’s global emissions total, which puts us in seventh place among 215 nations; but a little perspective, please.

China is first on that list at 22.3% with a bullet. The US is second at 19.1%. India is next with 5.5%. After you get by Russia, Japan and Germany, Canada is a paltry 1.9%, at which point, the numbers slowly trail off to several tiny jurisdictions responsible for a mere 0.01% each. So even shutting down the oil sands entirely would have a negligable impact on global emissions, and in fact, any savings would be eclipsed by China’s
escalating demand for energy as more of its 1.3 billion citizens join the middle class and partake in the joys of electricity and automobile ownership.

It’s also a distortion to suggest the oil sands product has a significantly higher (up to 15%) carbon footprint than conventional oil. Innovations like Petrobank Energy and Resources’ Toe-to-Heel Air Injection (THAI) method (controlled combustion softens gooey underground bitumen enough for it to flow to the surface, no upgrading
necessary) are helping to shave the difference to within 5%, and eventually zero.

But let’s pretend Alberta’s oil sands developments vanish tomorrow. Here are some of the benefits critical to our economic security we’d miss out on: operations and capital spending exceeding $30 billion this year; capital investment of $218 billion over the next 25 years; $1.7 trillion contributed to GDP over the same period; plus roughly 590,000 Canadian (and 340,000 US) jobs created.

Not that we should overlook the fact our global economy is driven by carbon-based energy; witness the excitement in the world market over turmoil in the Middle East and Libya that is pushing up oil prices to appalling highs.

Oil and gas will be with us for some time yet, despite the wind turbines, solar cells and biofuel made from bison poop. Oil sands energy represents a secure and reliable supply. Perhaps, some day, the world will get the message.