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Canada’s Dirty not-so-little Secret

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Much of the world views Western Canada as a picturesque wilderness with magnificent cities nestled in harmony with nature. Unfortunately the reality is sprawling suburbs, crumbling infrastructure, decimated forests and tucked away up in northern Alberta is the geological formation known as the Athabasca Oil Sands, and the industry that has developed around this massive, but difficult to extract, reserve of oil.

I’ve written before about the environmental mess this area is undergoing, but today it is worth considering these reserves in light of Obama’s promise to reduce the US’s dependency on oil…

Environment Minister Jim Prentice, speaking Tuesday in Toronto, said the Canadian government will push for a greater role in the U.S. energy market. He also defended Alberta’s oilsands production as “a reality” that is not going away, and said the U.S. will find that oil from that source is important to its future.

“Prentice’s focus on ensuring special consideration for oilsands is completely inconsistent with Obama’s position,” said Berman. “We need to slow down oilsands production and use it to transition towards renewable energy. We’re not saying ‘shut the oilsands down.'”

Source: Ex-PMs call for multibillion-dollar green stimulus in federal budget

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Recently I read a statement about these reserves that indicates they might not be all they’re cracked up to be.

The most optimistic production forecast for the tar sands in the 2020-2030 period is five million barrels/day, half of which would merely replace declining Canadian production of conventional oil. Tar sands oil is not going to postpone the arrival of peak oil for long.

Source: BCLocalNews.com – Community News Papers from across BC Online

Interestingly, the recent price drop in crude has dampened expansions in the oil sands…

A fourth quarter loss for Suncor, its first since 1992, led to another round of spending cuts and an “indefinite expansion of its oil sands expansion” according to Carrie Tait and Jamie Sturgeon of the National Post.

Spending plans were axed by half for 2009 from $6-billion to $3-billion in one fell swoop, down from an earlier planned spend of $10-billion. This falls in line with a recent trend by energy producers to cut spending due to the collapse in revenues on lower oil prices.

Source: Rebound in oil prices could be years off – FP Posted

The above article ends with the quip, “Oil demand will not pose a problem for rising capacity for some time. Even if peak oil is upon us, so what”. I will have to use this quote in my upcoming presentation on sustainability and the future. It represents the mindset that has plagued our society since M. King Hubbert first presented on the concept of peak oil in the 50’s – that it will be someone else’s problem, not mine.

One side, ironically the Environment Minister, is extremely protectionist about the Oil Sands production, which is known to be inefficient compared to “conventional oil” and highly polluting. (But who cares cause it’s “up there” north of Edmonton). The other side, (the realists?) see the Oil Sands as a way to ease into a transition away from a fossil fuel based economy.

Government more concerned about the short term  than the long term? Surprise surprise.

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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