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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Problem with the Alberta Oil Sands


This month's issue of National Geographic has a lengthy article on the Alberta oil sands [The Canadian Oil Boom].
The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other nation, about 19 percent of its total foreign supply, and around half of that now comes from the oil sands. Anything that reduces our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, many Americans would say, is a good thing. But clawing and cooking a barrel of crude from the oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than letting one gush from the ground in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands are still a tiny part of the world's carbon problem—they account for less than a tenth of one percent of global CO2 emissions—but to many environmentalists they are the thin end of the wedge, the first step along a path that could lead to other, even dirtier sources of oil: producing it from oil shale or coal. "Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world," says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. "Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we're willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil."
Canadians know there's a problem but politicians are very reluctant to address it. Albertans have been very vocal in playing the victim card in Canadian politics. They have successfully convinced people that the province was hard done by in the past when the evil citizens of Ontario and Quebec tried to deprive them of their right to keep all the oil money for themselves, instead of sharing it with less fortunate Canadians.

Today, any attempt by the Federal government to impose restrictions on Alberta will be viewed as an act of war.

There's an obvious solution. The government of Alberta has amassed a fortune in oil revenues. Even in these tough economic times, it still has plenty of room to manoeuvre.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the provincial government took steps to reduce green house gas emissions and develop greener ways of extracting oil? Wouldn't it be wonderful if they took the lead in recognizing there's a problem and start to deal with it? There's some evidence that the Alberta government might be headed in that direction [National Geographic oilsands portrayal "fair": environment minister].

Of course they'd have to abandon the whining about Alberta being a victim of the East. In the long run, that may be very hard to do.

[Photo Credit: Peter Essick, National Geographic]


  1. It is the single-mindedness of the Alberta government which is so annoying. They have this short-sighted, blinkered view - tantamount to worship - of oil and Alberta's place in Canada.

    Besides a hefty carbon-tax, what this part of Canada needs is a government with real creativity and passion, and the drive to get us out of the oil sands rut.

    The Pembina Institute is where the Alberta government should be looking to for inspiration.

  2. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the provincial government took steps to reduce green house gas emissions and develop greener ways of extracting oil?

    AFAIK, extracting oil from the tar sands ("oil" sands is a cute but inaccurate propaganda name given by the drillers) is inherently dirty. There are so many sources of carbon release, so many sources of waste that any sort of carbon capture would be impossible, even if this technology existed which it doesn't. Beyond that, extraction requires clearcutting and stripmining existing boreal forests and creating gigantic tailing ponds to collect the "waste". Again, none of this can be cleaned up.

    The problem is that the drillers have managed to fully socialize the costs while privatizing the profits. Alberta gets surprisingly little revenue from the tar sands and when the carbon waste into the air needs to be dealt with, the tailing ponds leak into the ground water or we have another disaster like the coal plant release which poisons the Athabasca, you can bet that most of the cleanup costs will be from public funds.

    Given the dangerous and wasteful nature of the project, it's shameful how few pieces of silver it took to buy approval.

  3. Alberta is not swimming in money! Quite the contrary. Their hedge funds were all held in stocks and other vehicles. These have to be sold at 60% of their value or less to get the cash.

    The figures the Government is putting out are last years numbers and are grossly inflated.

    Last September when the Canadian and US$ were at par, the Government switched our take to Canadian thinking it would have been noticed. Since that time Mel Knight has put himself on paper saying it was "always like that". Outright lies to protect the image.

    The 20% loss of revenue due to exchange on all petroleum trade in Alberta leaves this Government short close to 16 billion dollars by the end of this year!

    The AG bounced them in his 2007 report saying this province has only received an average of 19% on royalty missing their stated target of 25%.

    We have an economy that is built on lies and misconceptions forced onto us by the Government PR machine.

    It get's worse. Now with the economy in crisis they can push foward with the conservative agenda of privitizing every aspect of everything in this province including health care and education.

  4. If there ever was a worthwhile target for a biotech to justify the hype associated with it, it's this: converting oil sands into liquid flammable form without the huge energy expendentures of today.

    Go, Canada!

  5. You say there is a problem, I didn't know there was one.