Oil sands: Worth the risk?

Activists in Utah protest against tar sands. Photo via flickr

Activists in Utah protest against tar sands. Photo via flickr

By Jack Suntrup

CHICAGO—Dave Collyer had the tall task of convincing a room full of scientists that oil sands were good for the continent’s future at a panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences conference in Chicago on Feb. 15.

There were plenty of arguments against it: that it takes too much energy to produce, that it destroys natural habitat, that there are regulations against it, that it hastens climate change.

“I’m not going to sit here and say there isn’t an impact on the climate,” said Collyer, of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, after ticking off a list of possible benefits.

Among the benefits of oil sands are that they could help North America become energy independent, Collyer said.

With energy independence, there would be incentives to innovate and conserve, he said. After all, what benefits do far away countries get making North American technology more efficient?

Drilling for oil sands isn’t efficient. Nearly all of the easy-to-get-to sands are gone, making more intensive extraction a new reality, according to figures from the Pembina Institute.

Steam is pumped down far into the earth to help grease the extraction process. It takes a lot of water to get the sands out of the ground and pump them to refineries.

On top of that, Canada has environmental standards that would not be met if the sands continue to be extracted, said Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute at the discussion.

Demerse said that decisions must start to be made based on environmental impacts, not the immediate economics of a project. She said that North America is making advances in that realm, with President Barack Obama basing more decisions with climate change in mind.

Obama has yet to decide on the Keystone XL pipeline, a planned project that would pipe oil sands through the Midwest and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Hard-line environmentalists have derided and protested the project, while others have promoted it, saying it will create jobs.

A recent U.S. government report, criticized for being authored by some in the oil industry, states that there would be little environmental impact. Others disagree, using data and images of black sludge next to pristine forest to illustrate their point.

Most of the audience appeared skeptical of Collyer’s economic arguments and anxious for action. It seemed that as climate change hastened, patience had run thin.

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