Podesta: “green oil sands” like “error-free deepwater drilling”

by Luiza Ch. Savage

John Podesta, the head of an influential center-left think tank here in DC,  whose many alumni populate the Obama administration, gave a keynote speech at a forum this morning about the “Greening the Oil Sands” put on by Canada 2020. Podesta said that he didn’t want to be the “skunk” at the party, but he still managed to drop quite a stink-bomb into a gathering otherwise focused on promoting the environmental measures underway in Alberta.

The event at a Georgetown hotel ballroom began with Canadian ambassador Gary Doer calling on Americans to approach the challenges and opportunities of oil sands “not in a ‘Holier Than Thou’ way” but in a “realistic way.”  He recalled hearing a Hollywood actress state at the Copenhagen climate meeting that she had completely weaned herself off of fossil fuels. “I thought to myself, it was a long kayak ride from Los Angeles,” said Doer. “Being Holier than Thou won’t get us anywhere.”

Doer said that the use of coal-fired electrical generation in the US represents 60 times more carbon emissions in the US than oil sands do in North America.

John Abbott, an executive at Shell Canada, made the case that there are many misconceptions about the oil sands – beginning with their size. He said the resource covers 140 140,000 square km of land, an area [roughly] the size of England – but only 3% is mine-able, and covers only 0.02% of the boreal forest. He said oil sands have  5-15% more greenhouse gas life-cycle emissions than light crude – but that the level is similar to oil that the US imports from Mexico or Venezuela.

David Lynch, the dean of engineering at the University of Alberta,  described a variety of research and public-private pilot projects to improve the environmental impact, and noted that emissions have dropped by two-thirds since the 1980s. Scott Nelson, CEO of Titanium Corporation talked about their business of recovering minerals, bitumen, and solvents from tailings. A Suncor executive talked about a new process that is revolutionizing the management of tailings, that he said will allow the company to operate without building new tailing ponds and to clean up old ones. There were many PowerPoint slides and discussion of improvements in recycling water, reclaiming land, and reducing the use of natural gas.

Enter Podesta:

“I’m still skeptical about the quote-unquote green vision for the tar sands,” Podesta said.

“Oil extraction from oil sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive,” he said. “These things are facts. Suggesting that this process can come close to approximating being ‘green’ is largely misleading or far too optimistic or both. It stands alongside “clean coal” and error-free deep-water drilling as more PR than reality,” he said.

Toxic tailing ponds cover an area the size of Washington, DC, he said, and threaten wildlife and possibly human health. Reclamation “remains I think really a distant goal for most of the area being disturbed.” The mines use “enough water to supply 6 cities of one million people for a year.” He agreed that the oil sands pose a “distinct, strategic advantage” over oil from the Middle East or other politically unstable regions and that this “is certainly not trivial.” But he said the oil sands “cannot become our energy future” because there are no “silver bullets” or “leapfrog technologies.” Carbon capture and sequestration “is still closer to being on the drawing board than being deployed,” he said, and noted that “there is no certainty that leakage is not a problem.”

Podesta suggested that if more US states follow California and adopt low carbon fuel standards, oil sands producers should blend their production with bio-fuels.

While he acknowledged the progress made by the oil companies to clean up the extraction process, Podesta said, “We’ve got to do better than making oil sands oil look like a barrel of light crude.”

Podesta also questioned the “hurry” with which the US State Department has chosen to decide whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the Gulf Coast. He added that Trans Canada’s request to use thinner pipe in parts of the project is “especially ill-timed” given the BP oil spill. “Our risk tolerance should be extremely low,” he said. The “hurried approval” of the pipeline would “undermine” the administration’s mission of making investment in “clean domestic energy sources” and transitioning away from fossil fuels.

During the Q&A that followed, Gary Mar, Alberta’s representative in Washington, thanked Podesta for his talk which was “valuable,” Mar said, because it “compels the Alberta government to sharpen its case for the oils sands.”




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Podesta: “green oil sands” like “error-free deepwater drilling”

  1. He said the resource covers 140 square km of land, an area the size of England …

    Typo, or misstatement by Abbott? England isn't that tiny, and neither, I wager, is the Albertan surface area in question.

    • Wikipedia says that England is 130,395 square kilometers, so perhaps Abbot said (or meant to say) that the resource covers "140 THOUSAND square kilometers, an area about the size of England".

    • Correction to 140,000 noted. Thanks, Ms. Savage.

    • It's the oft quoted "140,000 square km" that the oilsands allegedly cover. Of course, the actual operations cover only 550 km, but the environutters prefer the larger number for propaganda purposes. George Moonbat loves to tell his admiring readers that the oilsands operations "cover an area larger than England." CNN and various US newspapers have uncritically repeated the same figure, CNN as recently as last week.

  2. I see they're still focussing on PR, rather than the writing on the wall.

    • And the writing on the wall is…. that the world needs the oilsands, and they will continue to be a valuable source of oil well into the future. Given the recent developments in deep sea drilling, I'd say the oilsands are looking better all the time.

  3. As someone who spent three years in Washington DC working with the energy industry, I find Podesta's comments deeply troubling. He clearly is more interested in keeping his green friends happy than looking at facts. Gary Mar is right. Alberta has a lot of work to do.

    • Really – you would dismiss all these concerns about the Tar Sands in favour of a further PR offensive?

      What, exactly, did Podesta say that was inaccurate?

      • "…largely misleading or far too optimistic or both."
        "…more PR than reality."
        "…really a distant goal…"
        "…there are no “silver bullets” or “leapfrog technologies…”
        "…still closer to being on the drawing board than being deployed."

        Are we sure Podesta wasn't actually talking about fossil fuel alternatives?

        • Ok, so what are the silver bullets and leapfrog technologies Podesta decried as non-existent? Has work begun on cleaning up and decommissioning tailings ponds, or is the technology still just a few years away from ready?

          How about when he said “Oil extraction from oil sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive". Is that inaccurate?

          If you think Podesta was wrong, or if like TwoYen, you think he was making things up to impress his friends, you really haven't made a case here.

          • He's certainly exaggerating. The 140,000 square km ('140' was a typo) figure is tossed around all the time by environmentalists. In fact, the oilsands entire operations cover about 550 square km.

          • "He's certainly exaggerating."

            No, it was that pinko at Shell that used the 140,000 sq. km. number, not Podesta:

            "John Abbott, an executive at Shell Canada, made the case that there are many misconceptions about the oil sands – beginning with their size. He said the resource covers 140 140,000 square km of land…"

            So – nobody has made a case against Podesta's comments.

          • First of all, I wasn't necessarily calling Podesta a liar, just pointing out that most of what he said could equally apply to the green-energy movement (which, as an engineer, I am fascinated by, but as an investor, I remain skeptical of) emnteverything he seais.

            But since you asked, I found this on an Alberta gov't website:
            "- In March 2008, Alberta issued its first-ever oil sands land reclamation certificate to Syncrude Canada Ltd."
            "- There are 530 square kilometers (km2) of land disturbed due to oil sands mine operations, which is just over half the area of the City of Edmonton."
            "- Currently, over 65 km2 of disturbed lands have been reclaimed. Reclamation certificates will not be issued until monitoring through time demonstrates these particular lands meet our criteria for return to self-sustaining ecosystems."

    • It is quite troubling, although not quite in the manner you seem to be saying…

  4. Luiza: great question today about what drives green breakthroughs. No particularly illuminating answers, but made me think about the role of gov't regulations, gov't investments and private motives and how they all fuel greener technologies (no pun intended).

  5. Podesta suggestion that oil sands producers should blend their production with bio-fuels is odd considering fuel from the oil sands is already blended with all North American crude. You can't go to any gas station and buy 100% oil sands gas so there's already some biofuel in there probably.

    • Odder still considering that our current use of biobuels are actually causing more pollution and energy consumption, not less. Gasoline with 10% ethanol leads to a major decrease in fuel economy. In my brother's Honda CRV, he's calculated MPG as nearly 20% less when he uses the 10% ethanol gasoline from Minnesota, as compared to the pure gasoline, which, in Minnesota, is only legal only for boats, ATVs, lawnmowers and farm equipment. (Ironic that a law that was passed at the behest of the farm lobby exempts farmers, but we probably shouldn't be surprised.) That difference is much greater than the 3% efficiency loss often cited by ethanol proponents. As an aside, ethanol is also worse for smog, as it produces more nitrogen oxides.

  6. "Green" is relative and largely a PR hacks term. If it's cleaner than before than it's "green". Thousands of products carry this on their labels now for no other reason than enticing consumers.
    The Tar Sands is more a mining venture than a drilling one. There's Natural Gas to be drilled for but the oil is mined largely still in open pits.
    Been there, worked there.
    It's not about "green", it's about saving money. If that means less land is converted, then it's a PR bonus.

  7. No one seems to pay attention to the fact that Canada's shrinking supply of less carbon intensive natural gas is being used to create more intensive carbon oil. What natural gas the tar sands operators aren't using to process their oil is being piped south of the 49th parallel. We're trading away Canada's future a billion cubic feet at a time.

    As for their tailings ponds that cover 130 square kilometres, Syncrude "hopes" to have them reclaimed by 2023. Note that Friday June 25th, 2010 is D-Day for Syncrude's day in court regarding the deaths of over 1600 waterfowl in the same tailings ponds. So much for "greening".

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/2010/06/june

    • I don't bother reading your diatribes with your advertising. I bet I'm not the only one.

      Duh.

    • More birds get killed during migration season crashing into Toronto's high rises (often over 300 per day). Have you got a solution for that? Or are bird deaths acceptable in Toronto, but unacceptable in Alberta?

  8. Podesta suggested that if more US states follow California and adopt low carbon fuel standards, oil sands producers should blend their production with bio-fuels.

    Are people still beating the ethanol drum? I thought even the greens had written ethanol off as a farce. It actually increases fuel consumption in vehicles and produces more nitrous oxides, which are a major component of smog.

    • To say nothing of diverting valuable agricultural investments away from, you know, food

  9. So Podesta whacks the Alberta oil sands just as Americans start looking for alternatives to deepwater drilling . . .while his brother runs a lobbying firm whose clients include none other than BP (Timothy P. Carney – Washington Examiner, my numerous attempts to get the link posted here have blown up in my face).

    As we like to say here on the south side of the 49th, that doesn't pass the smell test.

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