The greening of Canada

More on Tar Sands

Although principally addressed to the UK, George Monbiot’s  Why are plastic bags treated as the root of environmental evil? may well be equally applicable to North America.
25 February
Don Martin: National Geographic delivers a PR hell to Alberta
It opens to a three-page aerial spread of pristine boreal forest dotted with lakes beaming through the trees as a luminescent robin-egg blue. This is the “before” picture.
Flip over the foldout at the front of next month’s National Geographic magazine and the reader is confronted by the “after” photo, a ground zero of environmental devastation with sickly grey ponds bisected by slick roadways prowled by mammoth trucks carrying black gold.
This photo shoot for the magazine’s influential global audience is described as the “baby-seal moment” for Alberta’s oil sands, a public relations hell that will be very difficult to overcome, no matter how reasoned the argument. Text of National Geographic article
23 February
Stephen Harper looks to Washington, not Alberta


Scenic Alberta

(The Economist) DESPITE being two of the most profligate energy users on the planet, the United States and Canada have spent little time over the last eight years discussing what they might do together to combat climate change and protect the environment. That changed on February 19th, when President Barack Obama made his first post-inauguration trip abroad to meet Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. The environment was one of just three topics on their official agenda.
Mr Obama seems the more committed environmentalist; clean energy and energy reduction figure prominently in his stimulus package. Mr Harper is a more recent convert to the green cause and it is not yet clear he has been fully won over. He is torn between his allegiance to his adopted province of Alberta, where Canada’s tar sands are located, and the need to align Canada’s policies with those of America, which buys most of Canada’s energy exports. As long as George Bush remained in office, Mr Harper did not have to choose between the two, but a new president with decidedly greener views will force his hand.
The tar sands, which account for about half of Canada’s crude oil exports (almost all of which go to America, along with much of Canada’s natural gas, hydro-electric power and uranium), were under attack by green groups and some American policymakers long before the change of administration. Steaming the heavy oil out of the ground, or mining and processing the tarry sand, require large amounts of energy and water, and the deforestation of vast tracts of boreal forest. The federal and Alberta governments have resisted imposing environmental rules that would impede tar-sands development.
This stance is now shifting. Just days after the American election, the Canadian prime minister proposed a continental cap-and-trade system to control carbon emissions—something the oil industry in Canada adamantly opposed. Earlier this month, the Alberta government brought out a 20-year plan for the greening of the tar sands, which, while light on details, showed more than the usual resolve. Even more surprising was the decision in February of the federal and Alberta governments to charge Syncrude, a large tar-sands processor, with offences under environmental and bird-protection laws for the deaths of 500 ducks in one of the company’s tailing ponds last April.
Mr Harper and his advisors are also aware that while Mr Bush blocked states’ efforts to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions (California and Vermont, for instance, both wanted to set a carbon standard for transport fuels), Mr Obama may permit such state-by-state laws. And Canada is still fighting for an exemption from a rule inserted into the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that bars the American government from buying fuels whose production causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional petroleum sources, as producing oil from tar sands does.
At their meeting in Ottawa, Messrs Harper and Obama agreed to collaborate on the development and use of clean energy—boilerplate stuff. But they also discussed broader collaboration in the future, including matching their countries’ environmental rules.
At first glance, this is bad news for tar-sands producers, already struggling with the slump in oil prices from over $140 a barrel last July to less than $40 today. During that time projects worth an estimated $80 billion have been cancelled or postponed. Some people in the industry still believe that America’s need for oil is so great that it cannot afford to reject oil, however dirty, from a friendly, secure supplier. But with every green pronouncement from Mr Obama, this becomes a fainter hope.
There is a bright side. Stimulus money is pouring out of Washington and Ottawa, some of it already earmarked for research and technology to help the oil industry produce cleaner fuels. Both Mr Obama and Mr Harper made particular mention of carbon capture and sequestration, an unproven and expensive technology that could eventually be used on the coal plants that produce about 70% of American electricity, or on the upgraders and refineries in the tar sands. If the industry is finally and reluctantly forced to go green because of Mr Obama, at least taxpayers will help pay for it.
20 February
The end of Upgrader Alley?
(Globe & Mail) FORT SASKATCHEWAN, ALTA. — This is the would-be home of a massive bitumen upgrading project, which, after a $530-million investment in land, equipment and technology, now lies abandoned by all but security guards. Its corporate owner, BA Energy, is in bankruptcy protection.
The site and the surrounding fields are where Upgrader Alley, a hotly anticipated $80-billion complex of oil sands processing and related industry, has hit its physical and symbolic dead end. Upgrader Alley would have come with a huge environmental price. The Pembina Institute, an environmental research group, estimates that, with all plants operating under original projections, the upgraders would have generated as many greenhouse gas emissions as 10 million vehicles – and consume 10 times as much water as the City of Edmonton. Those kinds of numbers will buttress the anti-oil-sands sentiment in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. But Alberta could also argue that if separate upgraders are now built in, say, Fort Saskatchewan, Omaha and Chicago, the total environmental footprint is much bigger because these are one-off investments. In Upgrader Alley, producers could cluster for efficiencies in areas like carbon capture and water use.

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