Are the Canadian tar sands really the solution?

Margery Moore

Margery Moore

In his recent keynote speech to the ‘Greening the Oil Sands’ conference, John D. Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress highlighted a point that often gets overlooked whenever we start talking about development of Canada’s vast Oil Sands reserves.

As you may know, the tar sands are the second largest recoverable sources of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia, and the Alberta government proclaims that through responsible development, technology improvements and significant investment, it can help amplify Alberta’s role as a leading world energy supplier.

Even in Washington, D.C. one is hard pressed to hear anyone speak out against this development. “Hey, Canadian oil is better than foreign oil from ‘unfriendlies’?” I hear that a lot.  And, “What is the matter with you, isn’t this a matter of energy security?”

Mr. Podesta’s speech answered these arguments by pointing out that continued development of unconventional energy sources like this, is stopping us from fully addressing the real issue of climate change.

“We all recognize we have to keep global temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic climate change,” he said. “But our reliance on oil continues unchecked.”

I agree.

There are significant environmental and social costs to this development, including the clear impact of this development on wildlife and human life.  To me, who has been there, and seen this development with my own eyes, the scale and impact is sobering. The development could eventually impact an area of land comparable in size to the entire state of Florida!  $125 billion has been earmarked for tar sand developments within the next few years, and industry is calling for this to be increased to $379 billion by 2025. Projects totaling more than 7 million barrels of oil production have been disclosed, and current approved production exceeds 3 million barrels per day.

As one of the largest contributors to global warming in North America, I agree with Mr. Podesta that the tar sands are not the answer to our energy security crisis. Instead, we must reinforce our much talked about commitment to alternative energy and simply put more investment into renewable sources.

What do you think about the development of the Canadian tar sands? How do you think this should fit in within  U.S. energy strategy?

About Margery Moore

Margery Moore is the Director of EHS Alliances for the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (BNA) and a member of the NAEM Board of Directors. During her spare time, she serves as advisor to the Association for Climate Change Officers (ACCO) and runs The Institute for Sustainability Education & Action on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

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  1. Doug Tingey

    August 12, 2010

    It is essential to start framing this conversation in the context of the carbon budget that the globe has going forward. How much more fossil fuels can we combust openly? And how much of that should be allowed to come from Canada? This is different from our processing inventory, from how much higher is the emissions intensity of the oil sands. If we put these fossil fuels on the market, then we (Canadians) should be held responsible. The real issue with the tar sands (apart from the direct impact on the environemtn in Alberta) is the contribution from the use of the products that developing from current levels of 2 million to 5, 6 or 10 (as PM Harper fantisized when he first took office) million barrels a day. It is the increase in the aggregate emissions from this increase in production that is the real issue. Further development should not be allowed to happen for that reason and that reason alone. The very idea that we are going to combust gas from the McKenzie river delta in this context is a climate change obscenity. The tar sands must be locked in until such time as a sensible carbon budget is developed and room, if any, in that budget is made available to this development.

  2. Dean Clevett

    August 12, 2010

    The real question is not whether or not to develop the tar sands, underwater (Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico or offshore Alaska, etc); but rather, at what point do we start to reserve hydrocarbon resources for other, non-combustion uses. Every barrel of hydrocarbon feedstock that is used for a combustion energy source is a barrel that can’t be used for other uses (polymers, medications, etc.). With current technology, at least some polymers are recyclable and reusable, whereas, once a hydrocarbon is burned it is gone from the supply chain forever. Even if a perfect carbon sequestration method was developed tomorrow, at some point we would need to switch off hydrocarbon fuels for most uses. While there is a great deal of debate as to whether that day is 20 years, 50 years or more away, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to delay that day as much as possible.

  3. William O'Connell

    August 12, 2010

    When are we going to stop letting the huge energy companies lead us around by the nose (gas tank?)? Over a year ago, I read about the German distributed energy policy where various renewable sources of energy were being developed with subsidies based on what was needed to equalize the production costs. The energy sources included small methane recovery units from sewage treatment plants and landfills, as well as wind, solar and eco-friendly hydro energy sources. Because the production was decentralized, the grid did not need expensive upgrading to move huge amounts of energy across the country. Why aren’t we looking at emulating this progress? No new carbon fueled plants are needed.

    Why haven’t we taken California’s pricing nationwide? It encourages conservation and pays the electric companies more if their customers use less power.

    Wouldn’t these be good uses of stimulus dollars???

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