The EU has a point about the oilsands

Trying harder to clean up our act in Alberta would help our PR efforts


Jeff McIntosh/AP Photo

Yesterday marked a rather unremarkable chapter in the ongoing PR battle between the Harper government and much of the rest of the world around Alberta’s oil. On Thursday the EU held a vote on whether to label the oilsands as a dirtier kind of feedstock, a move that would make fuel derived from it less competitive compared to oil refined from “cleaner” kinds of crude. It was a deliberation among technical experts–not elected officials–and it failed to reach the qualified majority required under the EU’s mind-boggling voting system anyway. The vote that matters (by ministers of EU countries) will be held in June.

Nonetheless, both sides sized this virtually irrelevant step in the EU’s Byzantine legislative process to make some noise in the press–there was also news this week that Ottawa threatened a trade war if Brussels goes ahead with the purported fuel-labelling. So it’s as good an opportunity as any to ask: Does Europe have a valid point about the oilsands?

Brussels’ Fuel Quality Directive, as the measure is called, is far from perfect. Andrew Leach, of the University of Alberta, points out that the EU’s classification of different types of fuel, which is based on definitions used by the U.S. Geological Survey, makes some iffy distinctions between oilsands and other kinds of heavy oil that are likely just as polluting. Trying to classify fuels as more or less dirty based on the type of crude oil they came from, concludes Leach, isn’t the best way to go: “The EU FQD, as proposed, will treat some high emissions crudes as low emissions crudes, and they could greatly improve the policy by initially including all … heavy oil production at a high benchmark.” Even Alberta’s Pembina Institute notes that the EU could fine-tune things by “differentiating in the directive between crude supply types (e.g. for heavy oil).”

But the basic message from Brussels is one we should listen to. The oilsands are, after all, a dirtier kind of fuel feedstock and we’d probably be doing a lot better in our global PR crusade if we had made more of an effort to make Alberta’s oil cleaner. Besides, the FDQ, as currently formulated, contains a clause that allows oilsand producers to obtain a lower-carbon fuel label if they can show that their emission performance is actually below the default value associated with their feedstock type, notes Pembina’s Jennifer Grant. Some of Alberta’s producers may already qualify for this. Cenovus Energy, for example, has reportedly found a way of extracting bitumen at roughly the same average emission levels associated with all oil consumed in North America, according to Canadian Business.

There are many other technologies that could reduce the carbon footprint of oilsand wells and mines or otherwise reduce their environmental impact; from the often cited carbon capture to using solvents rather than water to steam the bitumen out of the sands and planting trees to make up for the additional CO2 emissions to synthesizing bugs that can turn oil particles into biodegradable stuff. Some of them are still very much the product of scientists’ imagination, while others have left the lab. But progress in both developing and applying them hasn’t been nearly fast enough.

The federal government has done close to nothing to nudge the industry towards cleaning up its act, and Alberta’s carbon price–at $15 per tonne–is too low to make a difference, says Grant. In Europe, hefty carbon taxes have reportedly led Norway’s state-owned oil company to implement a massive carbon storage project for its North Sea gas rig. And Andrew Heintzman of Investeco Capital adds that federal and provincial assistance could do much to help the industry bring new green solutions from inception to the implementation. In the oilsands, he says, even testing these technologies can cost tens of millions of dollars and require large pilot projects; there may even be a need for the government to provide a sort of laboratory oilsands field to try out different things in a pre-commercial setting.

Since we sell virtually no oil to the EU, the block’s directive (if it passes, which is far from certain) is unlikely to have any short-term economic impact on Canada. But it does set a precedent that others could follow. California, for example, has already implemented a similar low carbon fuel standard. Now, we can certainly argue that there are others more deserving than us of becoming the world’s climate change whipping boy. After all, less than seven per cent of the Canada’s GHG emissions currently come from the oilsands; CO2 from coal-fired electricity in the U.S. pollutes incomparably more than what’s coming out of Alberta; and many other types of crude are associated with a larger well-to-tank carbon footprint than the oilsands’. But the fact remains that the world’s oil importers are increasingly demanding a cleaner kind of oil–and we need to sell the stuff.

Of course, we could always just export to China. The alternative, though, seems more attractive: sell to China and others, help to keep the planet a little cleaner and cooler, and possibly become more well-liked. It might be worth the investment.


The EU has a point about the oilsands

  1. Nah….a bunch of PR BS is much easier …especially when you have a PM who thinks he can force a product on others …is on your side.

    Millions of dollars are invested every year on improving the technology, recycling water, using salt water, reclaimation of tailing ponds, etc.  When I read things like “World leaders must work towards a treaty that will outlaw tar sands extraction, in the same way they came together to ban land mines, blood diamonds and cluster bombs.” you know you are dealing with some way-out-there people.  The ‘re-think Alberta” propaganda was spread in the EU and UK.
    Liquid Salt Extracts Oil from Sand 
    Using Undrinkable Saline Water in SAGD   
    Oil Sands Tailings 
    I am still waiting for the enviro crowd to pick on the coal industry the same way they pick on the oil sands.
    “Drowning in a Toxic River The news traveled quickly up and down the Coal River Valley. The morning of December 22nd, a dam holding back an ash pond burst at the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant in east Tennessee and covered 400 acres twenty feet deep in toxic coal ash. Heavy rains were continuing to fall throughout the Appalachian region, and the concern was not only for the communities now living in this toxic nightmare but for the Shumate Dam, less than a mile down the Coal River from where I live, and just above the Marsh Fork Elementary School.  The earthen dam, which, like the Kingston dam, and which had also been leaking, held back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge, twice the amount of the Kingston Plant and hundreds of feet above the Coal River and the town of Whitesville. That day, like every day on the Coal River, a blast from the Endwhite Mine rattles windows the windows of my house, as Massey Energy excavates layer after layer of pulverized rock from the ancient mountains to get at the seams of coal that will be burned in plants such as the one in Kingston. Locals here fear that one day a blast will trigger the same sort of event that has just created the largest release of toxic chemicals and metals in the nation’s history.” 

    • Nobody is picking on you

      Alberta …and Harper….are the ones responsible for blatting this message all over the planet.

      Your PR has backfired badly

      • I am NOT attacking you Emily.   It is not PR, it is common sense.  If you read Dr. Weaver, a world renown BC climate scientist’s findings (and NO FAN of the oilsands), you would see that if all the oil in the world was produced and burned (including the oilsands oil), the earth’s temperature would rise by 1 degree.  If, however, all the coal in the world was burned, the termperature of the earth would rise by 15 degrees.  We are not saying that the oilsands oil does not produce more carbon than conventional oil but coal and uncoventional natural gas are much more of a vital danger to climate change than any oil production is.  Shouldn’t we be trying to get rid of coal as a source of energy first if global warming is the concern?  The problem is Germany produces coal as does the US.  We are stuck in an oil v. oil argument, when really the argument should be expanded but for political reasons, it is not being done.

        • Since no one ever claimed the tar sands was the sole cause of GW, Weaver is fighting a straw man.

          We aren’t in any oil v coal argument….it all has to be addressed.

          However 10 years ago most people outside Canada hadn’t even heard of the tar sands …..but then Harp went around promoting it….we were suddenly an ‘energy superpower’  and a ‘safe secure supply’ of oil to the US, and we have ‘ethical oil’….and then Keystone was a ‘no-brainer’ and environmentalists were suddenly  ‘enemies of the state’….

          Harp has now advertised the tar sands to the world….in a big way, while removing us from Kyoto and racking up our ‘fossil awards’.

          No one else has done this….so naturally the tar sands has now become the major villain in the piece.

          You have him to thank for your notoriety.

          • I didn’t expect that you would pay any attention to my comments but please at least be accurate and call them oilsands.  There is no tar involved.

          • You’re lucky I’m not calling it ‘sludge’ like the Americans do.

          • It is certainly your business and the Americans’ business what they call things but tar is man-made, usually from coal and is used to pave roads.  I know the bitumen resembles tar and molases, but it is oil.  I am not sure why people would want to call something what it is not.

          • Straw man?

            You do realize that this type of analysis show us where the highest utility is to be had with regards to emissions reductions. Transport fuels are an order of magnitude more difficult to deal with than electric power generation. While there very little of a oil vs coal argument in the environmental movement, there is certainly one when it comes to prioritization funding for emission reduction programs.

            Also your arguments that no-one is picking on oil sands and that Harper is the one to thank for the notoriety is very off. The oil sands are being picked on because they are optically convenient for environmental groups. It is easy to take a picture of the strip mining operations and get a visceral reaction. Coal used for electric generation just in Alberta has a larger CO2 foot print than the oil sands, yet we see do not see 1/100 the attention given to this easier to solve yet less optically convenient issue. There was already well establish anti-oilsands campaigns during the Chretien and Martin years. The oil sands are in the news so often not because of Harper, but because they can very easily propagandized.

          • a) Everyone knows where emission reductions have to be made.

            b) You’ve had years to do it, so don’t whine now

            c) The tar sands have had worldwide coverage since Harp started bragging about them

            d) They even have tour groups and photographs

            e) Harp was around during the Chretien/Martin years.

            f)  Look no further for your source of ‘propaganda’

          • Good job at completely avoiding the point.

            A) Yes, transport fuels have far less utility for emission reduction than electric generation. This is not to say oil sands should get a free pass, but they should be prioritized well after coal electric generation.

            B) I am not complaining about making emission cuts. I made a statement about the disproportional amount of attention that the oil sands get versus other higher emission sources. It is reasonable to think that we make cuts to emission where it easiest to do and where the impacts are the largest, hence utility should matter (utility = ease of cuts * impact of cuts). FYI emission per barrel have been aggressively cut over the last two decades.

            C) And well before Harper, also. Not sure where you were from 2000-2006.

            D) The point was disperse industrial activity which is more harmful versus concentrated industrial activity which has lower emissions. It is far easier to campaign against concentrated industrial activity than it is to campaign against the disperse activity. Take a look at every picture that FOE, Greenpeace, NDRC, ect have the oil sands, it is of strip mining. The majority of extraction is SAGD (~75%). If there was no strip mining and only SAGD, I would argue that there would be next to no attention about the oil sands. Pictures are nice tools for fundraising but are far less useful for fully understanding the environmental challenges.

            E) Yes, because the opposition had so much power during the Chretien years and the first Martin years.

            F) Of course propaganda comes from both sides, though it seems you are unable to acknowledge that it does not only come from industry and the Harper’s cons.

          • Rant all you want….it’s your image to wear now, thanks to Harper


          • Rant, what? I wear my rationality with the same pride as you wear your partisanship.

          • @google-4309d6c3265d6d7b8c60f91e736c9a2b:disqus 

            Sorry Paul, but I don’t belong to anu political party, and would cheerfully toss the lot of them

            I also promote science and reason on here, being an atheist.

            Trouble with you lot is that you can’t face reality….you think calling people names solves a problem

            The tar sands is known world-wide as dirty oil now…same way as the seal hunt is thought of as inhumane and brutal.

            Deal with it, and stop playing at politics.

          • Not belonging to any political party does not discount you from being partisan. Being anti-Harper can be a partisan position.

            Being an atheist does not make you an evangelist of reason and science. I am also an atheist, big deal.

            Tar sands are known as a dirty oil, that does not mean it is correct. In light of the proportionality and relative emission of oil sands compared to other transport fuels and compared to other sources of emissions, it is a weak label.

            My lot? Do you know what my lot is? In my books you are partisan because you like to label and not use rational debate as a means to discuss the issue. You offer nothing worthy of debate, no facts, no analysis of the issue. All you offer is that I am on one side of the debate and that you are on the other side. You are a partisan, until you can offer anything worthy of rational debate.

            There is nothing for me to deal with, because you have yet offer anything worthy of making me change my opinion.

          • @google-4309d6c3265d6d7b8c60f91e736c9a2b:disqus 

            I’m not interested in ‘debating’ the matter, and I am not remotely  concerned with your ‘opinion’.

            It’s not my problem…it’s yours. You did it, you solve it.

            Google     dirty oil

            That is your image, whether you like it or not.


          • If that is the case then why do you bother writing on this site.  Commenting is not a passive activity, its intent is to communicate something. Clearly based upon your comments you are advocating that oil sands developments are unethical, this is engaging in debate whether you wish to acknowledge it or not. Then again maybe you are one of them hipsters who engages in the sport of ironic commenting?

            Google “Jesus”, there is a picture so it must be true…

          • @google-4309d6c3265d6d7b8c60f91e736c9a2b:disqus 

            I said nothing about ethics.

            I commented on a comment site, I am not debating about something already determined by world opinion.

            I also said Ciao….take a hint.

          • It is implied in your comments and the labels you use.

            You commented on commenting site with comments that advocate a given position. World opinions can be wrong. For example, a lot of people believe in an after life. This does not make the opinion valid from a rational perspective. In the case of the oil sands I believe that the dirty oil label is a weak one and that there is a disproportionate amount of attention given to them compare to other emission sources.

            As for the ciao, I am not sure what you are getting at. It is not my obligation to stop the conversation. Perhaps you should take your own advice and cut your losses.

          • @google-4309d6c3265d6d7b8c60f91e736c9a2b:disqus 

            Ciao is goodbye in Italian….sorry, I forgot you were an Albertan and wouldn’t know that.

            How about hasta la vista baby?  I’m sure you know Arnie.

            Now then….I’m moving on….argue with yourself…and world opinion… all night if you like, but I’m outta here.

          • Yes I know that ciao is goodbye, this is clearly displayed in my last comment. The thing about goodbyes is that person saying it is obliged to end the conversation. You are the one saying goodbye, not me. You say goodbye, yet keep coming back. Does goodbye mean something else when not spoken in ‘Albertan English’? Apparently you are immune to cognitive dissonance.

            “Hasta la vista” is no good for your comments, you should just end them with “I will be back”.

      • I’ve noticed in this, as well as past comments OriginalEmily, that you have a raw, visceral hatred for Albertans.
        You regularly insinuate here that they’re all doltish, insensate, hayseeds hellbent on destruction, solely by virtue of their geographic location.

        What causes this animosity in you? Is it only because of a perceived discongruity between your political beliefs, and those you imagine all Albertans hold?

        Have you ever considered visiting Alberta, and challenging your preconceptions?

        • Noop sorry, my daughter was born there.

          • Well perhaps you should lay off the albertan hatred? Your fixation with it and lack of logical reason behind it make your arguments look pathetic.

          • It’s not Alberta per se….it’s the mindset.

            And while not all Albertans have this mindset, many of them do….as you would see if you spent any time on this or any other comment site in Canada.

            And I will always oppose that mindset.

            We don’t need a return to the Dark Ages.

  3. It’s a travesty that the industry generating so much of Canada’s standard of living from coast to coast (thanks to equalization and jobs) is always on the defensive.

    The EU has no right to impose such tariffs.  Especially when they would not penalize most oil exporters of the world such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela that are so oppressive to their own citizens and use oil revenues to enrich the powerful at the expense of the rest of the population.

    • Yeah they are, partially because we have a petrol dollar that makes exports uncompetitive.
      If we were smart, we’d be developing the resource more slowly as Lougheed suggests while retaining a more balanced economy.

  4. “There are many other technologies that could reduce the carbon footprint of oilsand wells and mines… Some of them are still very much the product of scientists’ imagination, while others have left the lab. But progress in both developing and applying them hasn’t been nearly fast enough.”

    Translation:  expensive.  Corollary:  only desirable as part of the current Climate Change panic, which may turn out to be nothing more than a hysterical fad.  Conclusion:  not worth sinking a decade’s profits into.  Further conclusion:  Wait on selling to the EU until either (a) they drop this tone, or (b) climate change becomes definitive.  

    Executive summary:  sell to the US as first priority, China as second priority.  If the US is stonewalling then switch those.

    I think that sums it up.  I’m sure Ms. Alini means well, but building a high-risk business model on Belgian smiles is not a smart move.

    • ” Since we sell virtually no oil to the EU, the block’s directive (if it
      passes, which is far from certain) is unlikely to have any short-term
      economic impact on Canada. But it does set a precedent that others could
      follow. California, for example, has already implemented a similar low
      carbon fuel standard.”

      Maybe you should read all of Ms. Alini’s article before issuing your executive summaries.

      • I think the argument is unaffected by replacing “EU” with “California” or “any entity caught up in the climate change trend”.

        China will not follow that precedent, so the conclusion is the same.

          • Emily, thank you for the link.  I am thrilled you read the information and know that most of China’s world-topping emissions come from coal-powered electricity.  Just like Canada, China is planning to lessen their dependance on this emission-intensive energy source….they obviously see our oil as a good way to do that.

  5. If they aren’t buying our oil now, they don’t have to later. It’s a commodity that is sought after . That and that alone will dictate much of how and when the oil is sold. It’s a sellers market and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
    Do we wish that it could be faster, cheaper, cleaner and waste free? Certainly. However a non-buyer isn’t going to bring these changes. It’s a lot of posturing that will change nothing. ( Unless the States and/or China jump on the “clean” oil cloud.)

  6. ” The federal government has done close to nothing to nudge the industry towards cleaning up its act” … nuff said.

    And to insinuate that Canadian taxpayers should subsidize the multinational multibillion dollar companies there that plan to export this Canadian resource in discovering and implementing methods that will clean up their act for them is absurd.

    Ethical oil indeed… maybe in a conservatives eyes…