Obama On Tar Sands - Or Should I Say Oil Sands

Dr. Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, blogs regularly at theGreenGrok.com.

Yesterday President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper talked about Canadian tar sands. They spoke of them euphemistically, calling them "oil sands." Now, politicians choose words wisely - perhaps they employed the term to make tar-sand oil seem less egregious? PC talk fixes nothing.

When I learned Carol Browner, the assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change, was accompanying the president on his trip to Canada, my hunch was that global warming would be on the agenda. An anticipated hot-button issues was tar sands, of course - a source of oil that sends a lot more greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere than conventional sources. Canada is the world's leader in exploiting tar sands.

Canada's Slippery Slope: Tar Sands

Not surprisingly, tar sands are big business for Canada. Huge amounts of the stuff is concentrated in Alberta's Athabasca Oil Sands, an area roughly the size of Florida. Factoring in the potential from these unconventional deposits, Canada's proved oil reserves add up to about 178 billion barrels, placing it second only to Saudi Arabia for the country with the largest oil reserves. Also not surprisingly, Canada is exploiting these reserves big-time, producing in 2006, for instance, some 1.25 million barrels a day. Again not surprisingly, pollution from tar-sand oil is Canada's fastest growing single source of greenhouse gas emissions (source [pdf]).

The rumor was that when the two heads of state met, Prime Minister Harper would propose that tar sands be exempted from any regulatory global warming agreement. Groups like Obama2Canada took issue with such a possibility, launching Internet campaigns to convince the president to take a stand against the stuff.

Obama Links Tar Sands and Coal

So what did Obama do? Here's part of his statement.

Here in Canada, you have the issue of the oil sands ... In the United States, we have issues around coal, for example, which is extraordinarily plentiful and runs a lot of our power plants. And if we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that'd make an enormous difference in how we operate. Right now, at least, the technologies are not cost-effective.

Fair enough, but I have a few bones to pick with the president, especially if he wants to consider himself a green leader:

  1. Costs - The cost-effectiveness issue is an easy explanation - excuse? - for using either tar-sand oil or coal, without carbon capture and storage. But it's a little facile. If there were policies in place that reflected the true costs of the pollution, the economics would change substantially. So what would I have preferred? I wish the president had added "without placing a price on carbon" to the end of his statement. (To his credit, he did discuss cap-and-trade options in other parts of his remarks.)
  2. Theirs and Ours - It's a little disingenuous to refer to oil from tar sands as simply a Canadian issue: About 75 percent of the oil exported from Canada and consumed in the United States comes from the tar sands.
  3. Shale - And while the president was on the subject, it would have been nice to hear his thoughts about the Bush administration's policy of granting leases to oil companies to exploit our oil shale deposits.

  • Environmental Costs - The environmental costs of producing oil from tar sands go well beyond the greenhouse gas pollution.
  • Now, here are some eye-opening stats on Canadian tar sands.

    Canada's Tar Sands by the Numbers: Costs in Global Warming Pollution

    Amount of greenhouse gas pollution emitted by producing a barrel of oil from tar sands compared to conventional oil: 3 to 1 (source [pdf])

    Tons of greenhouse gas pollution per year from tar sands production in Canada: 29,500,000

    Percentage of Canada's annual greenhouse gas emissions: 5

    Approximate number of cars it would take to emit the same amount of this pollution: 5 million (source)

    Approximate amount of natural gas used to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands (in cubic feet): between 700 and 1,200 (source)

    Approximate amount of water used to produce a barrel of tar sand oil (in gallons): between 105 and 168 (source)

    Tar sands oil production forecast for 2015 (in barrels per day): 2.2 million (source)

    Canada's Tar Sands by the Numbers: Other Environmental Costs

    Estimated area of boreal forest, lakes, and wetlands cleared to date for mining (in square miles): 200 (source)

    Area that would be cleared for planned development through 2030 (in square miles): 1,150 (source)

    Number of acres that have been certified reclaimed since mining began in 1967: 0 (source)

    Area covered by tailing ponds collectively (in square miles): 20 (source)

    Amount of wastewater leaking from tailing ponds every day (in gallons): 2.9 million (source)