From day one as our new environment minister, Jim Prentice has focussed more on the promotion and defense of the tar sands than the protection and defense of our environment and as much as he and the rest of the conservatives would like us to believe that they are the same thing, and that one cannot mention the environment without mentioning the tar sands, that is not the truth. That is the lie.
Prentice was out again defending the tar sands against the recent National Geographic photographic spread showing the Americans what the tar sands look like (a before and after pictorial, so to speak) with the latest conservative rationalization, developed with the election of Obama, being that the US coal fired power plants produce more greenhouse gases than the tar sand bitumen production and therefore …. I guess that means that the Canadians under Harper were not as bad as Americans were under Bush.
Not much of an argument when you consider than unlike our government, Obama is not planning to expand the use of coal fired hydro power. Unfortunately that is not the plan up here.
Prentice argues that technology is the answer and that there are ways to improve, the way we produce oil from the tar sands. He believes that the carbon footprint can be reduced. It's investments in technology and he’s planning to work with the Americans to that end. Of course the technology that he is alluding to, as the conservatives have been doing all the way back to their first environmental plan, is CCS technology, Carbon, Capture and Storage which both Alberta and the conservatives believe can be applied to the tar sands.
Alberta which is about to suffer it’s first deficit in 15 years also thinks the cure all for the tar sands is CCS. Even with a forecasted deficit for next year and a $3 billion loss in their Heritage Fund this year, the province is still planning to commit $2 billion for CCS development in their provincial budget and there is no doubt that the federal conservatives would not hesitate to match funds, something Alberta is expecting, if by making such an investment, they could eliminate any embargo from the US.
For our federal conservatives, there could not be a better time to make such a sizable investment by classifying it as a major part of the infrastructure stimulus funds, now set aside. Unfortunately the expectation that CCS technology could be applied to production facilities as large and as isolated as the tar sands is also a lie.
The largest CCS implementation in the world is a Norwegian offshore oil rig that captures carbon produced and pumps the CO2 gases through pipes into caverns deep in the floor of North Sea. One oil rig. The leading Norwegian expert, Olav Kaarstad of StaoilHydro, who developed that project and who are the world’s leading developer of CCS technology, was hired to start a project in Alberta last spring. By the end of July his company walked from the project claiming that the Albertans needed to start on smaller projects, local hydro generation etc. Two problems highlighted were the distance and infrastructure required to transport the captured carbon from Fort McMurray to underground caverns, possibly in southern Alberta and simply that the technology is not available or advanced enough to capture the volume of carbon dioxide being generated by production facilities the size of the tar sands.
Unlike the Obama administration who are pledging $15 billion a year to develop new cleaner and sustainable energy technologies, our oil focused government, in lockstep with Alberta is willing to waste billions of dollars on what is no more than a public relations exercise for at least the next ten years.
Of course, the new justification for this potentially massive investment and what appears to be a new conservative talking point is that the tar sands are our greatest national resource. In other words we as Canadians should not be concerned about the environmental risks, we should take pride in the big black hole that can be seen from space. Certainly a hard sell for some of us, when you consider who owns the oil rights.
The oil companies bought and own development rights, and they treat those rights as assets that they buy, sell and trade amongst themselves. The province and federal government receive royalties on oil produced. Unfortunately if the oil companies don’t want to expand production, nothing that either government does, including wasting billions on a future technology will matter and that is what is happening right now.
The recent string of postponed or outright cancelled projects is not due to a group of US mayors refusing tar sands produced oil, or the increased efforts by environmental activists and certainly not pictures in the latest National Geographic. The price of a barrel oil has fallen back to more normalized levels and with a $40 cost to produce a barrel of tar sands oil, it makes no sense for the oil companies to expand production and will in reality result in further reductions in production.
Which brings us the last mythical argument that our conservatives are trying to stress to the new American administration and the American public at large. Canada is a secure source of oil meaning of course that it is not produced in the desert sands of the middle east. This might be considered a logical argument if it was not for the fact that Iraq is believed to have the world’s largest undiscovered oil reserves, equalling 40% of the world’s existing reserves.
In order words the undeveloped western deserts of Iraq contain the largest source of low cost oil (under $3 a barrel to produce) in the world. After all that was the reason for the invasion and I do believe that all Americans, even democratic ones, think that their country has earned the right (both in dollars and blood) to access that oil.
With the Iraqi oil rights having been awarded to Exxon and others, within ten years Iraq will be the largest producer of low cost oil in the world and probably if required the cleanest since the CCS technology might work on their smaller sized projects.
Sorry Albertans, expansion of the tar sands is dead and this time it is not because of interference from us in the east, or from the tree huggers in the west. It is due to the greed of the oil companies who are content to take a back seat role in all this discussion about cleaner tar sands technology. They have placed all the costs of continuing the development of the tar sands, collectively on our shoulders and will only increase production when it is economically viable for them to do so.
The sooner your provincial government realizes this, the sooner you can end the boom to bust economy that has plagued your province. If the western provinces truly want to lead the country, use your wealth to invest in new industries and new technologies, non carbon based investments. Something that would help the environment and lead Canada into the future.
Which, by the way is what, Jim Prentice, our current minister of energy development should be concentrating on.