Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Possible environmental problems with Canada's oil sands

As oil prices have increased, it's become economic to extract oil from oil sands in Canada, especially in Alberta. The sands contain deposits of bitumen, aka tar. A New York Times article has some details:

Transforming the tar, more properly known as bitumen, which is mixed with sand, into petroleum is energy intensive and creates significant carbon emissions. Steam created by burning natural gas separates the semisolid bitumen. Then, more natural gas is needed to turn the bitumen into synthetic crude, which can be processed by refineries.

The development of oil sands projects has created North America’s greatest boomtown in recent years, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Its outsize economic importance has prompted Canada’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to champion the industry.

After the November election in the United States, Mr. Harper said he would seek to devise a continental climate change pact with the Obama administration. Mr. Harper suggested that any such agreement would include an apparent escape hatch for the oil sands because, he argued, of the energy security benefits they offer the United States.

Since then, however, Mr. Harper avoided an early defeat of his government, which does not control a majority of seats in the House of Commons, by shutting Parliament. Even if the Obama administration is willing to hold talks with Canada, Mr. Harper’s grip on power is now uncertain.

The Times cites a new study by the RAND corporation, a respected American think tank/policy research organization, that finds that greenhouse emissions in producing oil from oil sands are 10-30% higher than conventional crude. Environmental Defence, a respected environmental advocacy group, estimates that 4 billion liters of contaminated water were leaked from tailings ponds. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports severe damage to wildlife habitats from strip mining.

Unfortunately, there are significant financial and political interests that want to keep the oil sands flowing, no matter what the cost. Current Canadian PM Stephen Harper is one of them. There are others in the US:

“It would be a big mistake for Congress to impose restrictions on the oil sands,” said Paul Cellucci, a former governor of Massachusetts and former United States ambassador to Canada who now works on energy issues for the law firm McCarter & English, in Boston. “That would not be good for the United States.”

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