Canada's Tar Sands: A Dangerous Solution to Offshore Oil

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Canada's Tar Sands: A Dangerous Solution to Offshore Oil

by
Heather McRobie

As the clean-up of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues, the US may finally begin to rethink its position on off-shoring drilling. As usual, change is frustratingly slow, and almost imperceptible: environmental groups like the Centre for Biological Diversity have criticised the Mineral Management Service, the US agency that oversees oil extraction, for its "business as usual" approach during the disaster, and expressed concerns that the Obama administration has waived environmental reviews of more than 20 new off-shore drilling projects even as the Deepwater Horizon spill continues.

Still, a glimmer of environmental hope has come from the unlikely source of Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who withdrew his support to expand off-shore exploration off California's coast in the wake of the BP oil spill. It may be hard for climate-change activists to admit, but Schwarzenegger's move seems impressive, particularly considering the pressure he faces to ditch environmental concerns to save California's flailing economy. The governor's turnaround on off-shore drilling comes as he faces increasing pressure to abandon California's commitment to the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020. Opponents have collected enough signatures to put an initiative on November's ballot to delay the implementation of the act until unemployment falls below 5.5%.

In this political climate, Schwarzenegger's change of heart on off-shore drilling could bolster environmental campaigning efforts to reduce offshore projects nationwide: if recession-suffering California can do it, so can the rest of the country.

The problem comes if California shifts its consumption of oil to a more carbon-intensive source. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Initiative has noted that, even if offshore drilling is banned in California, it will have little positive environmental impact if the state's current demand for oil is just met from other sources. One likely source in particular will only worsen the situation: oil from the Canadian tar sands are already the biggest source of US oil imports, and Alberta's recoverable reserves are now estimated to be the second-largest worldwide after Saudi Arabia. And unlike oil from Saudi Arabia, Albertan oil is literally in the sand itself, so refining it is up to five times as energy-intensive as refining crude oil.

Alberta premier Ed Stelmach wasted little time visiting Washington to promote Canadian oil sands as a "safer" option in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster - referring to the oil sands as an "unconventional" source, as though one of the most destructive variants of fossil fuel extraction was merely a friendly alternative.

This is the moment that Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper has presumably been waiting for. While the US has, at least so far, resisted a complete dependency on Albertan sand oil, this environmentally disastrous from of petrol is widening its share of the global market. Despite the recession's impact on Albertan oil production, Albertan oil company Enbridge Inc is going ahead with its plans to build a 1,200km oil sand pipeline to supply Asian markets. Canadian oil companies have begun to actively court China, whose consumption of Albertan oil has increased dramatically in the last five years: the Canadian government recently approved a £1.5bn investment giving PetroChina a 60% stake in two new Albertan oil sand projects. Canadian oil is also reaching European markets: the new Greenpeace report revealed that Albertan tar sands oil has been indirectly entering the EU's petrol supply unbeknown to consumers, and indicated that this is likely to become more widespread.

Defenders of Canada's deals with China - hardly known for its environmental record - argue that it was a reasonable response to the decline in American interest in Albertan oil. The Obama administration in particular has shown itself to be ambivalent about Canadian oil. Harper's government and Albertan politicians seem to have made it a priority to win America over to Albertan oil - and are being lent support for this from surprising quarters.

Amid the popular (if characteristically understated) patriotism stoked by the Vancouver Winter Olympics, heightened scrutiny of Harper's environmental policies (if "policy" is the right word for a man who dismissed the Kyoto Protocol as a "socialist scheme" and then did his best to undermine a successor agreement) received a defensive response even from Harper's Canadian critics: now wasn't the time to tolerate "Canada bashing" abroad.

Similarly, when in 2009 Canada came last on a WWF scorecard of G8 countries' environmental policies, and the Obama administration's clean energy and security bill looked set to disproportionately harm the Albertan oil trade, Canadians were quick to note America's hypocrisy, and perhaps understandably resented being lectured by the world's largest and most profligate consumer. The problem is, none of the arguments that Canada is being somehow unfairly maligned actually contradict the point that the Alberta tar sands are evidently an unmitigated disaster for the environment, or that Canada's carbon emissions are estimated to have increased by 26% since the Kyoto Protocol.

With Alberta's premier happily capitalising on the Deepwater Horizon disaster to win the US over to Albertan oil, and Schwarzenegger backtracking on offshore oil drilling, recession-hit California and ambitious Alberta would be a match made in petrodollar heaven: Alberta would once again be secure as the dominant petrol supplier to the US, and the deal is far more palatable for America than its main alternative of tar sand oil, Chavez's Venezuela. For America as well as for Europe, Albertan oil is increasingly the best option from a political point of view - but never from an environmental one. The Gulf of Mexico disaster could trigger a wider environmental catastrophe if the US's search for new petrol sources points it back in the direction of Alberta.

Heather McRobie is a writer and human rights worker based in Sarajevo

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