Exchanging Oil Sands Expansion for Renewable Energy Growth in Canada

By Scott Sutherland
2015, Vol. 7 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

The majority of oil extracted from the Alberta oil sands is processed, diluted, and then sold to the US. The implications that arise from the oil sands production are a litany of health, environmental, and economic concerns. Despite all the implications associated with the oil sands, the provincial and federal governments have continued to support further industrial expansion of this kind.

This briefing paper focuses on the issues associated with the oil sands and why it is essential to pursue new policies that further encourage renewable energy development in Canada. I will demonstrate the method by which the government could build a progressive strategy towards green energy growth. Green energy development is beneficial for Canada and its people, as it is based on long-term goals and sustainable energy policies.

The Alberta oil sands development is a pressing subject at this time. Currently, the federal government and the oil industry are pushing for the Keystone pipeline that would join the oil sands to the more lucrative markets. The Keystone pipeline has been rejected by many spheres of society, including opposition parties, environmentalists, foreign governments, and scientists. To make the situation more challenging, oil sand growth is expected to expand into the future.

Heavy equipment for tar sands development

Photo: Wilson Hui CC-2

An important pipeline, called the Keystone Export Limited (XL) pipeline, connecting Alberta oil sands to refineries on the Texas gulf cost would hasten this process. It is estimated that between 2010 and 2025, more than $379 billion will be invested in oil sands development.1 As a result, oil production is expected to more than double, to roughly 3.7 million barrels a day by 2021.2 With the current debate surrounding the oil sands, this doubling of production will have major implications for Canada and the world. Based on a thorough analysis, I will demonstrate that further oil sands development is potentially devastating to the Canadian wilderness, its waterways, and its inhabitants.

Secondly, expansion of the oil sands is risky economics for the Canadian economy and private companies. Thirdly, support for oil sands by the government is politically hazardous, since it demonstrates near-sightedness, contempt for science and the environment, and a lack of concern for the livelihood of populations living in the vicinity.

What are the Oil Sands?

The Alberta oil sands are enormous oil reserves that cover roughly 140,000 square kilometers, or 20% of Alberta’s surface area.3 This space, which is slightly larger than the surface area of England,4 rests under the second largest boreal forest in the world. Boreal forests are recognized as vital components of the natural ecosystem and important carbon capture systems. These forests are home to diverse wildlife, pristine waterways, and over one hundred thousands people.5 The oil in these sands is extracted by two methods, either by surface mining or in-situ mining. The ecological footprint left behind by both extraction methods is astonishing.

The oil sands produce around 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.6 The extraction process is extremely energy intensive, and requires approximately 30% more energy input than conventional extraction.7 The CO2 emissions are also much higher than conventional extraction and can be measured by a system called “well to wheel,” which measures the total CO2 released in extraction, refinement, transport, and the final ignition of the fuel. According to a report by the World Wildlife Federation & The Co-operative Bank Insurance Investments, producing oil from oil sands creates, on average, three times more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than conventional oil.8

A recent estimate put the oil sands industry alone as responsible for 41.9metric tons of CO2, equivalent to 6.5% of Canada’s total emissions and 0.1% of the global greenhouse gas.9 If the province of Alberta, home of the oil sands, were a country, it would have the highest per capita emissions in the world.10

Locally, the problems become more acute. On average, for every barrel of oil produced, the consumption rate of clean water is 3 to 4.5 barrels, and this takes into account the recycling process.11 This toxic water is then dumped into “tailing ponds” until reclamation can take place. After nearly 4.5 decades of operation, there is no evidence that reclamation of tailing ponds is possible.12

This is of particular concern to Canadians, especially those that live near the lakes, and rivers, affected by oil sands processing. According to Canadian scientist, and oil sands expert, David Schindler, there is without a doubt leakage from tail ponds into the water table in northern Alberta.13 It is for these reasons and a host of further problematic issues, that according to Pulitzer Prize winning author and energy expert Daniel Yergin, “Canada’s tar sands are the world’s most expensive major source of oil in the world.”14

At an estimated 170 billion barrels of recoverable oil, the Alberta oil sands are the third largest proven oil reserves in the world.15 According to NASA scientist James Hansen, “if Canada proceeds with oil sands development and nothing is done, it will be game over for climate.”16 The federal government has adamantly denied these claims and has maintained steadfast support for further oil sands development. Resource Minister Tony Clement publicly dismissed Hansen’s comments as nonsense. However, as demonstrated in figure 1 below, Hansen was simply crunching the numbers.

According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 1.1 trillion (1100 million) barrels of oil have been extracted in the last 150 years, or since the first oil well was operational.17 Since then, a tremendous amount of CO2 has been released into the atmosphere as result of this oil use. If we imagine that all of the oil sands were developed with 3 times the conventional CO2 release, we get a frightening scenario. The amount of CO2 released from the oil sands alone would be more than 45% of all CO2 emissions that have previously been released into the atmosphere from oil consumption in the last 150 years.18 This does not even take into account the effects on Canada’s wilderness, waterways, and people.

Figure 1: 1,100 billion barrels produced since 1856

Figure 1


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