Blog Posts | Pembina Institute

Free advice for the new U.S. Congress — study up on the oilsands

Blog - Jan. 7, 2011 - By Danielle Droitsch

Canada isn't the quiet and unassuming upstairs neighbour it used to be.

This will soon become apparent to the 96 new members in the United States 112th Congress, sworn in this week.

Most are Republicans, who rode the Tea Party wave into office. How they react to energy and climate issues will be worth watching.

Part of their steep learning curve will be Canada's oilsands and climate policy. Canada is already America's primary source of foreign oil supplying 19 per cent of the country's total crude imports in 2008 and certain to increase the flow in future years.

But at the same time, Canadian oil has become controversial. In recent weeks, environmental groups in the U.S. launched radio, television and print ads calling on President Obama to reject approval of the Keystone XL project, a 2,739 kilometre pipeline from the oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Oilsands mining in northern AlbertaOn the day before Congress was sworn in, the American Petroleum Institute launched an advertising campaign promoting swift approval of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, the oilsands itself has sparked letters from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as thousands of concerned citizens over whether the United States should increase its reliance on this greenhouse gas intensive fuel.  

The issue will be hard to ignore. So, as these new U.S. lawmakers settle in, perhaps it's time for some free advice on Canadian energy issues:

Get up to speed on oilsands issues.

The oilsands underlie an area 56,000 square miles of land, or roughly the size of Florida.  In 2010, the oilsands produced 1.5 million barrels of bitumen per day, most of it shipped to the United States. Those levels could reach three million barrels a day by 2020.

With the U.S. as the primary consumer of this resource it has a responsibility to consider the environmental impacts on air, land, and water.

Smoke stacksThere are two types of oilsands extraction: mining and drilling (also called "in situ"). The media focuses on mining, but as we have discussed in the past, each has its environmental consequences.

But while mines are still expanding, in the long term the majority of development will involve drilling. The method uses less water and doesn't create huge open-pit mines. But it's a stretch to call drilling benign, given the substantial fragmentation it creates to forests, and given that greenhouse gas emissions are 2.5 times more intensive than mining.

Acquaint yourself with the regulatory environment under which oilsands development is managed and monitored.

In Canada, jurisdiction over energy and climate issues are split between the federal and provincial governments. Provinces like Alberta play a significant role managing natural resources, like the oilsands. Yet the federal government jurisdiction includes First Nations (Canada's term for Native Canadians), fisheries and at-risk species - all of them impacted by energy extraction.

Royal Society ReportOilsands monitoring programs — largely overseen by the province of Alberta — were recently criticized by the Royal Society of Canada, an independent review panel, and Canada's Office of the Auditor General, a federal government oversight agency. Despite the criticism, that regulators lack understanding of the environmental impacts, Canada is looking at significant expansion of the oilsands.

Understand the implications for greenhouse gas emissions with increased U.S. reliance on the oilsands.

Lawmakers should be wary of claims about the relatively low environmental impacts of oilsands production. According to independent, peer-reviewed studies, production of synthetic crude oil from oilsands is much more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional processes - anywhere from 6-37 per cent.  Excluding transportation, oilsands emits 3.2 to 4.5 times more greenhouse gas than production of conventional oil produced in the U.S. or Canada.

Pay attention to climate policy in both countries.

Canada's current government, under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has stated it wants to "harmonize" its climate policy with the United States. However, Canada has not matched the U.S. EPA's new greenhouse gas regulations, which cover new facilities and major expansions. 

Nor has it announced plans to align with the power plant and refinery regulations that the EPA plans to finalize before the end of 2012.

At this point, the Canadian federal government places no limitation on greenhouse gas emissions from new or existing oilsands facilities. 

If U.S. lawmakers are concerned about oilsands emissions, they will need to become familiar with both federal and provincial climate policy. In Alberta, the province where oilsands operations are located, the government's industrial greenhouse gas policy focuses on reducing the emissions intensity of production, not on making absolute reductions in the near term.

Unfortunately, Canada's national greenhouse gas emissions are projected to keep growing under 'business as usual', with a significant increase in oilsands emissions.

Iyke — Feb 17, 2012 - 01:48 PM MT

Yes, I nteicod that, but since I was referring to the monitoring system in general, I don't understand why you specified water monitoring. I would expect a world-class monitoring system to include scientists monitoring air, water, soil, plantlife, wildlife and human health in the affected area.

Randy Alexander — Jan 12, 2012 - 08:05 AM MT

Wow. That was a disappointing synopsis of the issues with tar sands. That's all you have? We produce more greenhouse gases by harvesting syncrude. Glad you shared that little known fact.

So a better plan is to let Iran affect the entire world's economy by rattling their sabres?

The fact is, the US consumes oil and will continue to consume oil at this pace for at least the next 50 years. Therefore, it makes the most economical, geographical, and political sense for the US to utilize the resources of its closest ally. The Keystone pipeline is a great idea that will only benefit these two countries.

Richard pokny — Jan 09, 2011 - 06:07 AM MT

How much government money does the Pembina institute recieve in direct fundind from the Federal government, the province of Alberta and the Province of Quebec

Steve McKechnie — Jan 09, 2011 - 12:43 PM MT

Richard. Those of us with opposable thumbs have little difficulty using a mouse to click any number of informative tabs. (See top of page) Locating available information and reading it all by your self can be fun and rewarding. You may even enhance the vast amount of knowledge you already possess.

Doug Halstead — Jan 07, 2011 - 02:00 PM MT

i have been wondering why my health has been declining over the last few years. i use to run 5.5 miles in 42 min. only 10 years ago, in saskatoon. now i can not even walk the 6 blocks to broadway and back, without having severe breathing problems for the next couple of days. than last easter i visited victoria for 12 days and was able to exercise 11 of those days, for at least 1 hr.
have noticed that on days when the weather is above average in temperature i am much better in saskatoon. have started checking and on these days the jet stream is taking the oilsands air north of saskatoon, instead of the normal of directly to saskatoon. i would move to bc, but the wood smoke is just as bad in the winter. my dr. tells me that i must leave canada to find cleaner air.
doug halstead

deryck gilpin — Jan 07, 2011 - 07:40 AM MT

p j partington writes"Canadians and Canadian industry both strongly support action on climate change". well, here in Ontario, our push to solar and wind power will lead to unaffordable electricity prices. Also the move to send TRILLIONS to some UN body for redistribution is the dumbest scheme ever. "Climate Change" seems to be the best income opportunity for thousands in living memory. I only hope Canadians fully realize the costs associated with this unbelievable and futile effort to "change" the climate.

Roger Gagne — Jan 11, 2011 - 08:00 AM MT

Hi Deryck,

I'm jealous. At least you'll end up with a cleaner, robust, stable, decentralized energy grid and thousands of new jobs.

Unlike us here in Alberta, where we've been saddled with a $20 billion price tag for transmission "upgrades" that will only lend themselves to exporting power from large central generators - whether coal or nuclear-fired - for the profit of a half dozen companies who happen to be good friends with our Tory government.

Steve McKechnie — Jan 08, 2011 - 09:42 AM MT

Like you, I hope the people around the World don’t have to fully realize the costs of changing the climate. Unlike the members of Congress, I haven’t sworn an oath to protect and serve anyone. Reading available scientific information allows me to make choices so that I may leave a better future for the next generation. I am only human. Please share your source of information that knows about trillions being sent to some U.N. body. A link to the study about unaffordable renewable energy would also be appreciated. In the spirit of sharing, I have found this web site to be educational and profitable.
Thank you.

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