Are Environmentalists Winning the War against Tar Sands?

Originally posted on 10/14/2010 by D. Platt; republished here with permission

The term tar sands, also known as oil sands or bituminous sands, refers to a type of petroleum deposit that is so viscous that it is difficult to extract. In order to get the petroleum to flow as it does in more conventional deposits, heat must be used. So it’s necessary to invest energy (heat) to extract energy (petroleum). Consequently the extraction process is more expensive than that required by conventional deposits. But as oil prices increase, it becomes profitable to obtain oil from tar sands despite the greater extraction costs.

For years people have been predicting that we are going to run out of oil any day now. These predictions began in 1875 when John Strong Newberry, the chief geologist of Ohio, predicted that the world would soon exhaust its supplies of oil. Many people have inaccurately parroted these predictions in the intervening decades. Why have such predictions been so off base?

All of the past predictions of fossil fuel exhaustion have been based on current rates of consumption compared to known fossil fuel reserves. The catch is that we keep discovering new reserves. And to make things more interesting, there are sources of fossil fuel that we have known about, but which we haven’t included in our reckoning of known reserves because there was no way of commercially exploiting these reserves. However the profit motive has spurned the development of new technologies that can extract unconventional sources of petroleum. It’s just a question of waiting for oil prices to rise to the point where implementing these technologies is profitable. And when it comes to commercially exploiting tar sands, that time is now.

Alberta, Canada is home to vast deposits of tar sands, and the Canadians are about to begin exploiting these reserves on a large scale. However environmentalists hate the idea of commercially exploiting tar sands. For one, they want us to run out of fossil fuels so that carbon sources of energy will become so expensive that renewable sources of energy (like windmills) will finally become financially competitive. Secondly since industry uses fossil fuels to heat the ground to extract the petroleum, more carbon is released into the atmosphere in its extraction than usual. If you care about greenhouse gases emissions (and I don’t), this is a big deal, too.

In 2007 environmentalists successfully lobbied Democratic Senator Henry Waxman to insert section 526 into the Energy Independence and Security Act. This legislation prohibits agencies of the federal government (such as postal service and military) from buying fuels produced by new technologies that release more greenhouse gases into the air than conventional fuel production does. This legislation was a cynical, environmentalist ploy to increase the risk to the investors who might be debating whether they should proceed with plans to extract oil from tar sands. As lobbyist Liz Barratt-Brown (representing the environmentalist group, the Natural Resources Defence Council), put it:

If I was an investor, I wouldn’t want to take the risk of putting money into the tar sands right now.

Well you might think that this environmentalist victory only affected the federal government. Private individuals, corporations and state governments were unaffected by it. True, but the environmental lobby didn’t stop there. Also in 2007 the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced that by 2020 all fuels sold in his state must reduce their carbon content by 10% which completely rules out tar sands as a source of fuel for Californians. And in June of 2008, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution trying to stop the import of oil from unconventional sources (which means tar sands).

In September of this year, environmental lobbyists addressed a letter to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Edward Markey urging them to block a planned pipeline which would transport oil from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune was interviewed less than a month ago, and he announced that his organization will be introducing a plan in the next three to six months that will block the use of oil derived from tar sands in pesticides, paints, and vehicles, including ordinary consumer trucks, cars, SUVs.

This month a NASA scientist, James Hansen, testified before a review panel in Alberta, Canada saying

We should not develop the unconventional fossil fuels. Those fuels – coal and tar sands – are so dirty and have such large regional negative consequences that it only makes sense to leave them in the ground.

If you oppose the lobbying efforts of these environmentalists, you should know that some American legislators are trying to push back. Two Republican senators who sit on the Armed Forces Committee, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, just recently introduced the Oil Energy Security Act of 2010 that would repeal Section 526 which had forbidden the use of tar sand oil by the federal government. If you oppose the environmentalists efforts against tar-sand oil production, you should write your senators and let them know that you support the Graham-Chambliss bill.


Update: Getting Ready for Oil Sands


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