OPINION: Alberta's oil sands is not the villain activists claim

April 8, 2010   by Dr. Roslyn Kunin

Dr. Roslyn Kunin, Canada West Foundation.

I am about to use a four-letter word that is almost never mentioned in polite society and is certainly being avoided by the media. Send your children out of the room. The word is coal.

Coal is one of the dirtiest sources of energy you can find whether it’s used directly for heating and cooking or burned to generate electricity. The effects of coal were seen in the famous pea soup fogs that polluted the air in London until well into the 20th century. The fact that young Chinese children describe the colour of the sky as grey rather than blue can be attributed to the traditional use of coal in home braziers and now increasingly to generate electricity in China. Even the US generates more than half of its electricity from coal, which results in more pollution than would occur using oil and much more than using hydro.

But do you ever hear all the activists who claim to be so concerned about the environment mention coal? I don’t. Instead, they raise all their voices against and release their vitriol on Alberta’s oil sands.

Yes, oil production in the tar sands is less efficient than more conventional oil production, but industry experts measure the carbon footprint to be only 5% to 15% higher and not the three times greater that some activists claim. Even this is partly offset by the fact that Alberta oil can be sent to market via pipelines rather than by ship.

Nor does oil sand extraction turn natural habitats into moonscapes. On a recent visit to the Fort McMurray area in Alberta, I found no evidence of permanently despoiled landscapes. Though the extraction process did cause temporary disruption to flora and fauna, post extraction activity restored both plant life and wild life. The families of buffalo including new calves may have been re-introduced there for effect, but they were thriving in the restored environment none the less.

I am not saying that the use of coal is always bad. For some uses, such as making steel, we have not yet found an effective substitute for coal. Those who have no other source of energy should not be left powerless. Even those who do have other alternatives, but only at a much higher cost, should not be made to feel guilty about using coal.

Of course, every effort should be made to develop and apply cost-effective technologies to minimize the polluting effects of coal. Chimney scrubbers are an example of such technologies.

Nor am I saying that oil, however and wherever obtained, can and should be used for all our energy needs over the long term. We should be looking at solar and wind power and other energy sources and working to develop the technologies that will bring them close to being cost competitive with oil at a smaller carbon footprint. We should also be looking at how to get more energy out of every barrel of oil through better systems for transmitting electricity, more efficient vehicles or any other means.

But people should be presented with all the limitations and advantages of oil sands energy so they can see the whole picture. Currently, only a distorted picture of the oil sands is getting much attention. This results in Canada having to engage in serious discussions with Europe to avoid having trade restrictions put on imports of oil from the oil sands into Europe.

Europe and the US having been paying attention to the scruples of anti-oil sand activists. Poorer countries such as India and China find this oil very attractive. It’s also cleaner than the coal (or in India’s case, even dung) they have been relying on for power. If we listen to the loudest voices and fail to see our oil sand resources clearly as part of a total picture of energy sources, Canada may find it’s losing control of a valuable asset.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is the director of the Canada West Foundation’s BC office. E-mail

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