The Canadian oil sands dilemma

Mar 01, 2009 01:00 AM

With America's reliance upon Middle Eastern oil falling under increasing criticism, President Obama recently travelled to Canada to check out their oil sands operation with the hope of inspiring them to clean up their act; the meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Harper did not produce any measurable results, though.
The US has been searching for alternatives to the high-quality oil it has depended upon for decades from the Middle East because of geopolitical pressures and depleting reserves in the region, but a new dependence upon Canadian oil may result in an even dirtier habit for America.

The dilemma surrounding America's reliance upon domestic coal for a majority of its electricity generation is similar to the situation developing with America's newest supplier of oil; for the time being, both seem to be a necessary evil. A new age of environmental awareness has pushed the US toward seeking to find a way to capture emissions from coal-fired power plants and ultimately clean the whole coal process, but the current technology is still dirty.
Much like the coal industry, excavation from the Canadian oil sands contributes copious amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and is extremely destructive to the surrounding environment, but, for the time being, it allows the American economy to continue to function.

In today's dual-natured reality -- a heightened environmental climate within a worsening recession -- President Obama seems to be caught between getting the American economy back on track and investing in technologies that will clean up some of the processes we currently use to get energy. The tightrope he has to walk keeps getting thinner and thinner and is leading him to more uncertain terrain.
Of course, there are numerous recent studies that point to the fact that investing in clean energy technologies creates jobs, but oil and coal are not going to disappear overnight, so it would behove America to begin to figure out ways to clean the whole fossil-fuel-to-energy process while also trying to make the transition to a low carbon economy happen.

Finding a way to make extracting oil, as well as burning coal, cleaner will benefit society in the short- and long-term, but there is a certain sense of impatience developing in the environmental movement that is contributing to a growing trend that America should abandon of fossil fuels altogether; a proposition as preposterous as drilling for more oil or mining more coal.
It goes without saying that forcing oil and coal companies to invest in technologies to clean their extraction or burning processes costs money. The more regulations that are placed upon projects like Canada's oil sands, the closer the projects come to being unprofitable; where then will America get 20 % of its oil from? Similarly, if we place regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants, those costs have to be recovered somewhere, most likely in the mining process, and the practice of mountaintop mining becomes necessary.

America's energy dilemma is daunting. President Obama's goal of finding a way to meet US energy demands while at the same time creating environmental regulations is commendable, but is it practical? His recent trip to Canada proved that this balancing act, in today's marketplace, sometimes cannot produce measurable results.
Both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Obama said during their recent meeting together that energy security and the environmental impact of Canada's oil sands operations will be priorities in the development of a joint energy policy that seeks to foster the development a continental dependence upon the fossil fuel.

"What we know is that the oil sands create a big carbon footprint. So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is how do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change," President Obama said recognizing the precarious position the world's major economieshave gotten themselves into.
The fact that these issues are being addressed through policy and legislation in America is reassuring, but the practices of extracting oil from the tar sands in Canada and of burning coal are currently extremely environmentally destructive.

According to National Geographic's piece on the Canadian Oil Boom the process is described as follows: "To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds".
The practice of mountaintop mining as described by Mountain Justice as a process that should be "more accurately named: mountain range removal. Mountaintop removal/valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes".

The truth is that more environmentally sound practices in the removal of petroleum from the oil sands or coal from Appalachia's mountains do not exist right now, nor do methods to make the burning of fossil fuels cleaner. Research money would have to be funnelled into these processes, and many analysts speculate that commercialization of these technologies would be more than a decade away.
The question, then, we should be asking ourselves is whether or not America would be better off spending our research dollars on advancing renewable energy, electrical grid upgrades, and energy efficiency initiatives.

It is only fitting that President Obama's first trip abroad was to Canada to discuss Canada's controversial oil sands. The amount of oil in this region, the world's largest energy project, is second only to that in Saudi Arabia. It is easy to understand, considering America's dependence upon oil, why President Obama would focus uponthe Canadian resource and push for methods to clean the process up.
Here is a quick lowdown on some of the facts regarding Canada's oil sands (from Get Energy Smart Now):

-- In a given year, oil sands mining uses twice the amount of fresh water than the entire city of Calgary. At least 90 % of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in tailing ponds that are extremely toxic; propane cannons are used to keep wildlife at bay. The toxic tailing ponds cover 50 sq km and can be seen from space.
-- Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands emits 3x the greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil, causing it to be nicknamed "dirty oil". It is estimated that by 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount of greenhouse gases than is produced by all the cars and trucks in Canada.
-- Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 mm homes.

Relying upon Canada's oil sands for petroleum may, however, be better than importing it from the Middle East. The dirty nature of the oil, though, may keep the US from being able to sign any international climate treaties; this could explain President Obama's concern regarding the process of harvesting the "dirty oil" and his first cross-border jaunt to Canada.
Currently, most of the oil produced from the Canadian region is exported to America. America imports roughly 20 % of its oil from Canada, which recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as America's largest supplier. China is vying for a bigger percentage of the Canadian pie. China's definition of "developing nation" excludes it from having to adhere to the emission regulations of international treaties. The oil fields are turning into one giant chessboard where long-term strategy is of the utmost importance.

President Obama seems to have gotten himself into a difficult position in terms of meeting America's energy demands in an environmentally sound manner while no real technologies are ready for commercialization. The electrical grid cannot handle a massive build out of renewable energy technology yet because of the intermittency problem, so we are reliant upon our dirtiest resource for the foreseeable future (there simply is no clean coal technology yet).
America's automobile fleet is currently still made up primarily of gas guzzlers; an influx of fuel efficient models is not scheduled to come online until 2010-12 and there is no telling if Americans will be willing to buy the higher priced models. We are reliant upon oil and coal for the foreseeable future; the environment is in a state of distress as a result of our mining and burning of fossil fuels... these are the facts.

The diminishing energy return exhibited in the production of oil from Canada's oil sands is a stark indication that renewable energy technologies can and should be developed. In the next several decades, America runs the risk of relying upon a feedstock that will become more limited and hence, more expensive.
President Obama, recognizing this, has apportioned vast sums of money towardbringing clean energy up to commercial scale; but the reality of the situation is that for the immediate future, dependence upon such dirty projects like Canada's oil sands and Appalachian mountaintop mining are necessary evils that will have to exist for the time being, unless of course, the recession deepens and consumption and manufacturing continue to slow down even further. Regardless, President Obama's ambition of cleaning up America's energy matrix just might open the door wide enough to allow for the diversification of America's energy portfolio sometime in the next decade.

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