Breakthrough technologies could soon help Canada’s tar sands/oil sands producers slash their per-barrel greenhouse emissions and production costs, but would still sidestep an inconvenient reality, several environmental groups say: to cap and draw down the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, those fossil resources will still have to stay in the ground.
The question “is not whether it is possible for technology to green the oilsands, but whether doing so would eventually create more harm than good,” National Observer reports. “The thinking goes for some that no matter how ‘clean’ the oilsands extraction process becomes, the end result is the production of more heat-trapping fossil fuels—which must be phased out this century to help limit catastrophic climate change.”
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
With tar sands/oil sands surface mining set to stabilize at 1.7 million barrels per day, and in-situ production on track to more than double between 2016 and 2040 to 2.9 million barrels per day, according to the National Energy Board, the Alberta industry is looking to replace current expensive and energy-intensive in-situ extraction methods that involve “forcing large amounts of steam underground, melting the bitumen, and pumping it to the surface,” the Observer notes. A recent report by the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) concluded that experimental alternatives to that process could cut per-barrel greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%, and production costs by up to 40%.
One such alternative involves using fossil fuel solvents like butane to soften the bitumen, rather than steam, while another uses a radically more efficient steam generation process.
But these alternatives to today’s extraction process are not cheap—a small drawback that has the industry lobbying hard for government funding. “Clear opportunities exist [for] industry and government to work together to meet common goals,” said Bryan Remillard, oil sands sector manager at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), in an email to the Observer.
The Alberta government is clearly listening, with its commitment  last December to directly invest $440 million in “oil sands innovation”, the biggest chunk of a $1.4-billion diversification initiative unveiled  by Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous.
But Oil Change International Oil Change International Senior Advisor Adam Scott said the whole effort misses the point.
“The oil industry wants us to believe that their challenge is per-barrel emissions, when in fact that’s not the primary objection to [tar sands/oil sands] development,” he told the Observer. He added that equating a per-barrel emissions reduction with greening the industry is a dangerous misunderstanding.
“Our primary concern is about the lock-in that happens when you build new projects that are meant to last for decades,” he said. “The total emissions from those barrels, producing them and burning them, is massive.”
Scott, along with analysts at Environmental Defence and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, was sharply critical of efforts to maintain and expand tar sands/oil sands research and development.
“We already have the technologies we need to shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Scott said. “Wind and solar are now market-competitive, out-competing the dirtier alternatives and last-century fuels like natural gas, coal, and oil. There’s no new technology required to make that transition. It’s just about investment and actually doing it.”