mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Can We Green Canada's Oil Sands?

View of an oil sands mine near the town

Let’s just get this out of the way: the oil being extracted from Canada’s tar sands is dirty. The energy source is extremely energy-intensive to extract and refine; one study estimates that tar sands oil emits 8 to 37 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude. The tar sands are also leaking, so far having spilled nearly 300,000 gallons of oil over the last two months, and the company responsible hasn’t yet identified the source of the leaks and, therefore, has no plan in place to stop them.

For its part, however, the industry is working on ways to “green” the extraction process, as Bloomberg reports:

The paste-like crude extracted from oil sands is softened by heat and steam to make it flow though pipelines. Burning natural gas to process the fuel creates carbon dioxide that researchers say can be mixed with waste water and fed to algae, which can be processed into cattle feed and other products….

Many look to science for help. University of Calgary Professor Pedro Pereira-Almao and Nexen Inc., an oil-sands producer owned by [Cnooc Ltd.], are testing the use of nano-particles to process bitumen before it’s pumped to the surface. This “underground refinery” would result in less combustion of natural gas and lower emissions by eliminating at least one heating cycle for the fossil fuel.

Algae can “feed” off of carbon dioxide and eventually be refined into fuel oil. The oil sands are emitting plenty of carbon, giving would-be algae growers ample opportunity to test the new technology. Other technologies, like the nano-particles Bloomberg mentions, are being developed to extract oil more safely, efficiently and with less emissions. There’s a business case for better drilling, and that, more than any green policy, is going to be a boon for the environment.

That’s good news, because with the price of oil above $100 a barrel, Alberta’s reserves are going to be drilled, despite the outcry from environmentalists. Many greens are intent on blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, choosing to fight the battle over that piece of proposed energy infrastructure as a proxy for the oil sands development in Canada. It’s a silly place to take a stand. If the Obama administration chooses not to approve the Keystone pipeline, which would connect Canada’s tar sands with America’s gulf coast refineries, the tar sands oil will simply find its way to market by rail or by alternative pipelines.

President Obama said he would only approve Keystone if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” and a recent study confirms that this project will pass that test. At this point, all signs point toward a White House approval of Keystone, and another blow to the feckless green movement.

[View of an oil sands mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta on October 23, 2009. Photo courtesy of MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images.]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Bart Hall

    The Alberta oil sands have been “leaking” for millennia — that’s how they were discovered in the first place.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service