Canada’s oil sands are now the major whipping boy of European and American green groups fighting the Great Climate War.
Canada is an easy target. It’s a breeze to beat up on America’s little brother and the world’s boy scout.
In the past few years, the mass media, perhaps whipped by President Barack Obama’s call for the U.S. to end its reliance on foreign oil, has focused its spotlight increasingly on the Sands, smelling blood. Members of the new profession of “environmental journalism” have become climate-change cheerleaders, going after the Sands using their very best schoolyard taunts.
Holding their noses at the stink coming from Canada’s majestically ugly strip mines, they happily dub them “the biggest environmental crime on the planet” and “the worst environmental disaster in history.”
Even Canadians such as Simon Dyer of Alberta’s Pembina Institute haven’t been able to resist joining the fun, calling the Sands “the worst project in the world.” Toronto’s Environmental Defence has also chimed in, producing a report called “Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth.”
“With the tar sands,” says Environmental Defence, “Canada has become the world’s dirty energy superpower.”
Calgary journalist, Andrew Nikiforiuk, backed by the Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace, bluntly called his book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, and Montreal writer William Marsden taunted Albertans, calling his book Stupid to the Last Drop.
So, what’s going on here? Why are these enviro-journalists so obsessed by trashing the tar patch and calling it the “biggest environment crime” on the planet when there are so many more worthy offenders?
Several genuine environmental crimes come to mind, for example, Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Iraqi marshes or the Soviet Union’s use of the Aral Sea to grow cotton, which turned the whole region into a desert. But the Sands pale before the new China model for growth, which builds another coal-fired power station every three days. And let’s not forget the U.S. electric-power generating industry that pumps out 44 times the carbon emitted by Athabasca oil sands plants. The single top emitter in the U.S., the Scherer plant in Juliet, Ga., spews out 25.3 million tons a year of carbon dioxide (CO2) compared with total emissions from all the Athabasca Sands of 40 million tons of relatively clean CO2,
primarily from the burning of natural gas to make steam, electricity and hydrogen.
Note these enviro scribblers carefully use the word “tar” and scornfully demonize it as “dirty oil,” as if it were some kind of devil’s brew and not that sweet golden syrup coming from the Middle East that we lovingly refine and pump into our Priuses.
OK, granted, bitumen’s a few hydrogen atoms short of sweet, but Canada’s bituminous sands are not “tar sands”– tar is a substance made from coal — they are properly oil sands. But in the battle for ratings and journalistic standing, “tar” is a dirtier word and the Sands make better copy. Who cares about China? Blame Canada.
Yet, Canada is a fairly benign culprit, emitting a mere 1.9% of total greenhouse gas emissions (2006 data), whereas the European Union, often touted as achieving its greenhouse gas (GHG) targets, emits 13.8% despite its 196 nuclear power plants which emit no CO2. Meanwhile, China produces 21.5% and the United States 20.2%. Canada comes in at number 12
in the 2008 Environmental Performance Index, ahead of countries like Denmark at 26, Ireland at 35, the United States at 39 and Australia at 46.
According to oil-expert Daniel Yergin, Canada’s oil sands represent the future of North American energy. In the next five years, production should double and the producers are counting on the U.S. market to absorb it all, says Greg Stringham, a vice-president at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
I had a talk about the potential of Sands development with Neil Camarta, vice-president of gas at Suncor, in his Calgary office. Camarta was in charge of building the Shell Albian Sands mine from scratch, and he explained the true value of the Sands in an era of declining discoveries. “Oil sands are not the same as oil,” said Camarta. “With oil drilling, the time of discovery is the best time, when pressure and flow are high. The oil sands do not act this way, and never deplete like oil wells.”
Unlike most deposits in the world that have to be hunted down, the Sands are just lying there for the taking, some of them up to 140-feet thick. All you have to do is build a giant washing machine or underground pressure cooker, pay the friendly government a royalty and promise to clean up when you leave. You don’t have to explore for the oil. You know
the deposits have a very long life — Suncor, for example, has access to oil that could support its current production for 100 years.
All you have to do is steam the bitumen off the sand or melt it underground, and then thin it with solvents so it flows to your up-grader or refinery. But many critics feel that is the problem. They say that making light synthetic crude oil from heavy bitumen costs money, up to 10 times more money than pumping sweet crude up from pools under the Saudi desert. It’s so big a problem that the “unconventional” oil sands are regarded by the International Energy Agency as merely a “fallback” energy source. Some fallback.
A closer look at the facts tells a different story. To take oil from the Athabasca Sands, you don’t have astronomical drilling costs — such as BP’s $100-million-plus offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico that is as deep as Mount Everest is high.
You don’t have to pay the danger premium or subsidize local potentates. Canada is stable, and you could say Alberta is even more stable. After capital costs, you can extract a barrel of bitumen from the Sands today for about $35, far less than it cost back in the 1960s.
For oil companies interested in a stable business model, the Sands deliver. And that’s why the world’s major energy companies are getting deep into the Athabasca. Onethird of multinational giant Shell’s reserves are now there. Until the 2008 downturn, institutional investors were flocking to buy a piece of the action, and all of this action made Alberta second only to China in its growth rate.
The growth will continue.