Wednesday Night #1299 – Tar Sands #101

Written by  //  January 24, 2007  //  Judith Patterson, Reports, Wednesday Nights  //  1 Comment

In addition to the welcome presence of Wednesday Night’s favorite geologist and resident expert on aviation and the environment, Judith Patterson, we were joined by John Herity, the Director of IUCN-Canada and former head of the Biodiversity Convention Office of Environment Canada. John’s distinguished career in the Environment field includes over 30 years with Environment Canada, including some 13 years with the Biodiversity Convention Office.

Energy Security and Tar sands #101
The environment being a common good, it is too much to expect that all nations will be willing to take the necessary steps to avoid sacrificing the very future of human and animal existence on the altar of present human comfort. We are increasingly unwilling to give up short- distance air or automobile travel for train or public urban transportation, or to ban SUVs, or take the necessary steps to generally reduce energy consumption. The U.S. with 4.6% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the world’s oil; the use of alternative fuels has become a very serious issue in the U.S. as the national preoccupation has become ‘Energy Security‘ , provoked by a combination of events including 9/11, the war in Iraq, $70 bbl oil and Katrina.
What could be more enticing/reassuring than the knowledge that there is a vast reserve of oil available from the Athabaska Tar Sands, which represent 80% of the world’s tar sands? This is an economical, convenient and secure source of oil without the risk of transporting conventional petroleum from potentially more dangerous parts of the world.

[Editor’s note: Radio-Canada reported on Jan 19 that the Harper government is giving serious consideration to a plan for a fivefold expansion of oil sands production emerging out of a Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting between Canadian and U.S. oil executives and government officials. The ” Zone Libre Enquête” report has some major flaws, especially that it implies that this is a recent development, whereas the meeting in question took place in January 2006, three days after the Harper election.]

It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that these are NOT oil sands – they are tar sands, – oil that has been degraded over millions of years. This is bitumen – what asphalt is made of.

The refining of tar sands requires huge amounts of natural gas to separate the oil from the bitumen, and then they have to use five times the amount of fresh water as the amount of oil produced. We are also changing the physical environment placing woodlands and caribou at risk. Ultimately and realistically, in the not-too-distant future, this source of petroleum (and the natural gas that we use to extract it, not to mention the water) will dry up. A possible solution in the medium term would be nuclear energy to provide the electricity to replace natural gas, but this option faces clear opposition from many whose fear of uranium appears to be excessive.
However, these tar sands solutions including the use of nuclear energy to separate the sand from the bitumen are but temporary. In the longer term, if we and the Earth’s non-human terrestrial inhabitants are to survive, we must plan long term for energy sources that do not exhibit the environmental hazards demonstrated by the burning of fossil fuels and realistically, we should factor the cost of environmental change into the price of petroleum products. Even if the emissions reductions provided under the Kyoto Protocol were to be respected, they were not intended to be a cure, but merely a means of providing the world with a brief interlude in which permanent solutions might be found, a list that would probably not include the burning of carbon based fuels.
In Canada, we tend to feel secure in comparing ourselves with the United States in energy conservation but in truth, we depend on federal and mostly, provincial legislation, while in the United States, in the absence of federal legislation, State and Municipal governments have been working effectively to cut greenhouse gases aiming to change habits through incentives, penalties and encouragement, – e.g. banning or penalizing the use of SUV’s -, until such time as alternative fuels become a feasible option.
The U.S. with 4.6% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the world’s oil and leads the world in the production of greenhouse gasses. Home to a fifth of the world’s population, China, which consumes 4% of the world’s daily oil output, is the only country to produces more greenhouse gases than the U.S. However, its unrelenting economic growth fuels a voracious appetite for energy.

They are strip-mining northeast Alberta
There’s between 2.5 and 4 barrels of water and 1000 feet of natural gas required to make one barrel of bitumen. You lose about .2 – .3 barrels of water for every barrel of oil you get – and this is not a water-rich part of the country
It’s costing more than it’s worth in terms of the damage it is doing to the planet
… it takes the equivalent of two out of each three barrels of oil recovered to pay for all the energy and other costs involved in getting the oil from the oil sands
Oil is a fungible product; whoever wants oil will get it
We have 8.1 years of reserves left

Park avenue du Parc saga continues
It appears common for some people elected to political office to disregard the wishes of the electorate after the elections. Within the past half century, the local press appears to be more dependent on press releases issued by interested parties than in going to the expense of analytical reporting. It is in this light that the actions and determination of the local citizenry in opposing the renaming of Park Avenue is a refreshing contrast to the stubborn determination by a majority of the elected representatives to disregard the wishes of those who took the trip to the polls to mark their ballot. At the outset, the name-change appeared to be a done deal, however City Hall may be ultimately defeated by the tenacity of the few who have attracted the many including prestigious names like Phyllis Lambert. It should serve as a reminder to both of the importance of the system in which we live and the power of the people to change the way government works. It is important that this reminder was initiated by relatively recent arrivals to Canada, Québec, Montreal, who are in a position to remind us of the power of the electorate vis-à-vis the elected, that we should all cherish. Mayor Tremblay’s casual dismissal of the Toponomy Commission as a ‘rubber stamp’ entity has also backfired; all of a sudden this unknown group of volunteers has become the centre of the attention and appears to be giving very careful consideration to the 500+ submissions received.
It is unfortunate that the unwitting victim of this incident is the Bourassa Family. Robert Bourassa’s contribution to Québec has transformed this province and he should be remembered in a fitting and permanent manner. It is noteworthy that opposition is not to honouring Bourassa’s memory, but to the Mayor’s arrogance in deciding how to do so. Thus there is growing support amongst the public to develop an attractive alternative such as the plaza proposed by architect Joseph Baker.

Like the report of Mark Twain’s death, reports of the death of radio – at least FM – are greatly exaggerated.

Ségolène Royal
The meeting of the socialist candidate for the presidency of France, Ségolène Royal, with André Boisclair has caused yet another France-Québec dust-up, and one that has been reported widely. It has afforded Jean Charest the opportunity to tell the world that the future of Québec will not be decided beyond our borders, but more significantly, the incident has highlighted an unfortunate series of gaffes on international matters by this otherwise attractive candidate. However, reports from friends in France indicate a feeling that matters are spiralling out of control and the governing UMP party candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, is much more likely to impose control. Offsetting that is that the Conservative candidate represents a more pro-Atlantic viewpoint, which is unpopular in much of France.

The presidential race in the U.S.
In the United States, despite Barack Obama’s current popularity, and depending on the choice of Republican candidates, some Wednesday-Nighters see Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton being nominated over Obama, however others believe that the U.S. may not be ready to elect a woman, while still others believe that Senator Clinton has made too many enemies, perhaps by being too strong.

Canadian elections
One Wednesday Nighter predicts no federal election this year, but an election in Québec to be called right after the budget, producing a major Liberal victory. The PQ is losing some very influential members and there is a reluctance for high-profile individuals to become candidates.

Oil prices
The deployment of a second U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group in the Gulf does not bode well for peace and stability in the region. This could well cause a large hike in oil prices with hedge funds leading the charge to buy oil futures. Hugo Chavez, not the most stable inividual, could well make matters worse. Libya’s unfailing tendency to cheat on its quotas might, however modify some of the consequences of any OPEC attempt to reduce output.

Private clinics and Québec healthcare
It is unfortunate that the Québec health care system which is excellent in quality, lacks adequate access. The failure of the government to provide timely access to the system has led to a small but expanding number of private clinics, which, if left unchecked, will ultimately erode the public system. It is to be hoped that the message will become clear to the government and that steps will be taken to provide us with the accessible, quality medical care that we expect, deserve and pay for. It is indispensable that we learn how to harness ideas and practices from the private system to make the public sector work better (something that the McGill Faculty of Management is addressing). Patient-centered collective bargaining would contribute to an efficient system. There is much to be learned from both the British and Australian systems.
The problem is not with the quality of our healthcare system, it is with the access to it

The State of the Union Message
Mixed opinions on the quality and content of the speech, however it was agreed that generally it exceeded peoples’ expectations.
“I have the same reaction to this year’s energy proposals in the State of the Union that I had to last year’s. President Bush had the opportunity to launch America on a transformative new path for clean, efficient power. He had a chance for a “Nixon to China” moment – as the Texas oilman who leads us into a greener future. Instead, he gave us “Nixon to New Mexico” – right direction, but not nearly far enough.”
( Thomas Friedman Jan 26)


One Comment on "Wednesday Night #1299 – Tar Sands #101"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson January 24, 2007 at 1:23 pm ·

    Tar sands links
    For a good explanation of bitumen: ; also for Tar Sands basics and;
    “Canadian oil sands: A new force in the world oil market”

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