Podesta: "green oil sands" like "error-free deepwater drilling"

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.”