Within 24 hours of Barack Obama’s election, the Canadian government dropped a carrot in front of the face of change. Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed that Canada seek a joint climate change pact with the U.S., intending to exempt Alberta oil sands from potentially strict new climate change regulation while also offering a secure oil supply. The pact could help to initiate large-scale mechanisms for mitigating rising carbon emissions, but could also ignore the environmental impact of the oil sands.
Alberta oil sands contain one of the world’s largest oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia. Recent growth in production has positioned Canada as the number one oil supplier to the United States, fulfilling 19 per cent of the country’s oil consumption. However, this growth has also contributed to Canada’s increasing carbon emissions and inability to meet Kyoto Protocol targets; Environment Canada has recently identified the oil sands as the largest contributor to growth in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Oil sands are problematic because they don’t allow oil to be freely pumped from the ground. The oil is found in bitumen, a sticky semi-solid, which is encased in sand and rock. Extracting and refining bitumen takes a great deal of energy: according to a 2005 report issued by the Pembina Institute, an environmental research and advocacy organization, the oil sands daily consume enough natural gas to heat 3.2-million Canadian homes over the same period. Because of this intensive production process, one barrel of oil sand can produce two to three times more carbon dioxide than a barrel of conventional Albertan oil, although this value can vary significantly.
Dr. Robert Page, TransAlta Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability at the University of Calgary, said that conventional sources also have a carbon problem.
“There are significant emissions in terms of the transportation. And if you look at Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or some of other OPEC suppliers for the United States as alternatives to the oil sands, then you have gas just being flared in those oil fields…. There are significant emissions in addition to the production of oil,” Page said.
Page also noted that regulations are lax in many OPEC countries, but just how lax is poorly understood. It’s difficult estimate what has happened to emissions now that the U.S. is looking to Canada for oil instead of reserves that are further away or less regulated.
The environmental impacts of oil sands are not limited to emissions. Surface mining – the predominant form of oil sand extraction – requires complete vegetation clearing and water drainage, making the once lush surface into something moon-like. Wastewater is collected in toxic tailings ponds that have grown so large that they can now be seen by the naked eye from space. A 2008 Environmental Defense report states that many ponds are leaking and creating a “slow motion oil spill in the region’s river systems.” Jennifer Grant, a Policy Analyst in the Pembina Institute’s Oil Sands Program, is concerned that the oil sand companies are not cleaning up after themselves.
“Reclamation has been poor to date in terms of land impacts. There have been about 500 square kilometres of land disturbed by mining, but in 40 years of development only one square kilometre has been actually certified as reclaimed,” Grant said.
Given the world’s addiction to oil, it is not likely that oil sand development will close down any time soon. Rather, many researchers are looking for ways to clean up oil sand operations to avoid penalization in future climate change plans. Any cleanup will be long term; carbon sequestration projects are underway, but full carbon-neutrality for the oil sands could take several decades. Oil sand producers are also looking to incorporate renewable technologies to reduce the use of natural gas in oil sand production.
Trying to keep up with the environmental initiatives of the new U.S. administration will likely prove difficult. According to Page, its environmental regulations could be unprecedented.
“I think that everyone is expecting that the regulations are going to get tougher, it’s just a question of how tough,” Page predicted.
President-Elect Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the environment and most recently fortified his intentions in a video message presented at the Global Climate Summit held last week in California by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Obama has also often recognized the threat of foreign oil dependence on national security, and Canada will continue to hold strong cards in this category.