Dirty oil sands make poor leverage

Posted in Energy, Politics by cimmetry on January 27, 2009

I am skeptical of pronouncements from Canadian political leaders who have declared Canada an oil superpower and who plan to use this as leverage with the United States. While the Alberta tar sands contain oil reserves comparable in magnitude with those of Saudi Arabia, the process of extracting the oil is inefficient, costly and very dirty.

President Barrack Obama is pointing his country in the direction of cleaner energy and less dependence on oil and non-renewables. The tar sands are hardly an ideal fit.

The Toronto Star’s David Crane agrees. In an opinion piece published on 26 January 2009, he notes that Canada is

…bargaining from a position of weakness, rather than strength. It wants an exception from recent U.S. legislation that bars the U.S. government, including the military, from purchasing oil sands oil because of its high carbon content, and also from Obama’s plan to establish ‘a national low-carbon fuel standard.’

He rightly concludes that we need to get over the fantasy that Canadian oil can be used as leverage. Such a strategy may have shown promise with the Bush administration, but it is unlikely to work with President Obama.

I do not discount the value of the tar sands — the world’s dependence on oil is not going away anytime soon. The sands are an important resource, but we need to demonstrate prudence in managing them. The government should encourage industry to find cleaner and more efficient ways to to extract the oil. Current processes consume significant amounts of fresh water and natural gas — both are resources that the Americans are interested in.

A cleaner approach to harvesting the oil sands that results in decreased carbon emissions, wasted water and natural gas — that is a vision that Canadians, Americans and others around the world would buy into.