Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Tar Sands, Dirty Oil, and the future of a continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk: Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the future of a continent (David Suzuki Foundation, 2010). 219 pages, index, bibliography, appendices, maps.

abbreviations used in this article

CO2 - carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas
GHG - greenhouse gas(es)

                           Albertan boreal forest: before oil sands "development"

                          After "development": looks like Mars.. inorganic..

                          Mars: definitely inorganic (or maybe a few hardy microbes)

"Our principal impediments at present are neither lack of energy or material resources nor of essential physical and biological knowledge. Our principal constraints are cultural. During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth" Marion King Hubbert, geophysicist, 1976

"In 2006, Canada's environment commissioner, Johanne Gélinas, laid out the dirty math. She reported that oil and gas production, including tar sands mining, had produced 150 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2004, a whopping 51 percent increase since 1990. Oil and gas destined for the United States accounted for nearly a third of Canada's increase in total greenhouse gases, approximately the same amount by which Canada failed to meet it Kyoto protocol targets.

 Noting that the tar sands had made a major contribution to "increasing greenhouse gas emissions", Gélinas found overall an astounding level of federal neglect and incompetence on climate change and oil production" "Few federal efforts are underway to reduce these emissions and those efforts have had minimal results to date. For its part, the federal government is counting on regulatory and long-term technological solutions.. However, it is not leading the way by clearly stating how and to what degree Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emission when oil and gas production is expected to increase." Gélinas concluded that any further growth in tar sands production would likely cancel out national efforts to lower emissions. Shortly after she produced her damning report, the government fired her." Tar Sands, page 128 (Canada, a land of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech..)

"The real work of transforming Canada's fossil fuel-dependent economy will not be big or glamorous. It will be humbling work. Our tasks, as social critic Wendell Berry has noted, 'will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.'" Tar Sands, page 5

".. fifty  years ago, the world annually burned up four billion barrels of oil and discovered thirty billion more. 'Today we consume 30 billion barrels per year and the discovery rate is dropping toward 4 billion barrels per year," Tar Sands, page 189. Kjell Aleklett, director of the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group before the US House Subcommmittee on Energy and Air Quality, 2005 

             Essentially, we moderns have become idolaters of Mammon, profit, specifically the profit of high flying multinational corporations and the investment banking sector which finances their capital intensive megaprojects. Everything must be sacrificed to this hungry, arrogant, jealous divinity. We have lost our way. The natural order of things is reversed: wo/man now serves the economy. The economy has become our master, not our slave - the world turned upside down..

             One of the major themes of this book is that in the process of selling off her oil and gas to the petro-giants, the province of Alberta has morphed into a North American petrostate.

Petrostate, you say?

               A petrostate is a State controlled by the petroleum industry. This influence has, over time, repeatedly proven inimical to democratic institutions. A government which depends on oil revenues is beholden to the oil companies, not the voters. Thus Alaska and some Gulf States (USA) have no income tax. The citizen therefore becomes less engaged, less vigilant about how government is run and how money is spent. After all, it's not his money! In the long run, the political process with its healthy, inherent antagonisms withers and dies on the vine. Alberta has had about 40 years of unbroken years of conservative party rule, voter turnout is abysmal. Is this a healthy democracy? 

                Petrodollars prop up one party rule: Mexico, Indonesia.

               Giving away a non-renewable resource (oil, diamonds..) dirt cheap has negative knock on effects that can affect other sectors of the economy. Thus we suffer a high Canadian dollar and attendant job suppression in the manufacturing sector. While Alberta - with the collusion of the Feds - is responsible for the oil and gas give away, central Canada - Ontario and Québec - bear the brunt with their relatively large populations and depressed industrial sectors. However, not all of the economic and social distortions are exported to other parts of the country. Alberta suffers from a boom 'n bust economy, typical of economies based on rapid, non-renewable resource extraction: absurd housing prices, inadequate infrastructure (access to doctors and other professionals, insecure highways..), crime, drugs, homelessness, drunk or drugged driving, divorce, breakdown of community spirit.. 
               Alberta has failed to implement even the most minimal regulation of its boom 'n bust tarsands fueled economy. In comparison, Norway has used its oil royalties to build a fund for future social investments, for example, in alternative energy development as cheap oil reserves deplete. Meanwhile, Alberta burns the candle at both ends and gives no thought for the morrow. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

              There are, in reality, a host of reasons why Canada, with the aid of federal government investment, should prioritize the green energy sector: zero carbon footprint buildings, wind power, thermal solar, photovoltaics, geothermal power, biomass, hydro-electricity, tide and wind power.. Converting tarsands - literally sand soaked with bitumen, bottom of the barrel stuff - into usable fuels and petrochemicals is highly energy consuming and thus greenhouse gas (GHG) producing. The bitumen must be released from its sandy matrix with heat which consumes much energy. Because of bitumen's high molecular weight it also requires more energy input to "crack" its long molecules into usable fuels and petrochemicals. Alberta's tarsand industry is a major reason Canada has failed to meet its Kyoto Protocol GHG emission quota.

             Extracting tarsands, either with giant mechanical shovels or by "in situ" underground steam heating is a messy process. Not only does it destroy fragile - sometimes unique and important  - ecosystems, it also generates a lot of toxic waste presently stored in "holding ponds". Like nuclear waste, no one really knows what to do with the carcinogenic mess, so it keeps piling up. Occasionally flocks of wild birds mistakenly land in bitumen rich portions of these ponds and die..

                                          petrochemical soaked duck

             There is some evidence - much of it anecdotal admittedly - that people downwind or downstream of tarsands refineries are physically ill and / or have higher rates of cancer.

             "Reclamation" of used lands is proceeding at a rate far lower than oil companies originally promised.  

              Finally, Nikiforuk points out, the entire tarsands industry is an accountant's nightmare. It is even hard to estimate how much the oil companies have ripped off the people of Alberta and / or the Canadian federal government, so poorly are records maintained. Environmental monitoring and auditing of air, water and soil by the Alberta government is, bluntly, a farce (see link above concerning heavy metal contamination exceeding nationally mandated limits). All of which leads  one to concur with Nikiforuk: Alberta is a de facto petrostate.

               In a concluding section, "Twelve steps to Energy Sanity", Nikiforuk sketches out a programmed withdrawal from a fossil fuel economy (page 200). While any or all of these steps are debatable (while we still live in a democracy-of-sorts...), they deserve perusal by anyone who gives a tinker's dam about humanity's common future:

1- Admit the nature of the Peak Oil crisis. Cheap oil is going. We must prepare for Energy Descent - or suffer.. Forewarned is fore-armed!

2- Slow tarsands development and cap production at 2 million barrels / day. In the future, as cheap oil really begins to run out, "non-conventional" sources of petroleum will be extremely valuable, less as fuel sources than as feedstocks for the chemical industry (pharmaceuticals, plastics, paints and pigments, synthetic fibers..) and as lubricants (for all those renewable energy powered vehicles..) I personally would cap production at a somewhat lower level, maybe a million bbl / day.
3- National Canadian Energy Policy with emphasis on green energy development.

4- Carbon tax to spur development of non-carbon energy sources.

5- Say no! to petropolitics:
     (a) greater transparency and freedom of information to follow dirty $ trails
     (b) use oil royalties to build a sovereign investment fund to spur future conversion to a green energy economy. Norway, Australia, China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates did it! Why can't we, duh..
     (c) boost royalties to current "best practice" levels. Once again, Norway has led the way..

6- Fight continental energy integration schemes. These benefit energy and capital intensive multinationals. But the future we face is one of Energy Descent as cheap energy reserves deplete. We should therefore be moving toward decentralized, labor intensive green energy networks where energy is produced locally (home installed photovoltaics, for example) and consumed locally. This reduces the need for expensive infrastructure (high volume transmission lines) and the energy needed to produce and maintain it (for example, long distance transmission losses).

7- Relocalize food production. Globalized food production will become a thing of the past as cheap energy reserves deplete. We need to get ahead of Energy Descent and begin the Great Transformation now, to reduce impacts..

8- Abandon "dead end" technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage. These technologies are merely stopgap measures designed and promoted by the fossil fuel industry to prolong their dominance in the energy sector as long as possible. We need to think outside the box: think green energy and decentralized energy networks. We need to invent tomorrow's technologies, not prolong yesterday's..

9- Re-orient rural and urban planning toward renewable energy: walkable urban communities, where most of what you need is within walking or biking distance. What is not within walking distance should be accessible with public transport. We should use trains for transport - versus trucks - wherever possible to minimize energy consumption. Promote zero carbon buildings, buildings which produce more energy than they consume. What about urban agriculture? Underground buildings? Hydroponics? Restoring wetlands to treat waste? Green belts to consolidate and build organic soil content in arid zones? Capturing flue gases to feed fuel and food producing algae? The field is vast and barely explored, so fixated on high carbon life styles have we become..

10- Learn to walk lightly on the land, reduce our energy footprint. We are not talking about technology here but "lifestyles" and values (and the goals that flow from values). Scandinavians and Japanese live with half our energy consumption or less. Yet their living standards are not lower than ours. It is even arguable that theirs are higher than ours: longer life expectancy, less crime, more upward social mobility.. Under this heading we need also consider: energy audits, learning to waste less, do things more efficiently. Maintain - or improve - our infrastructures to reduce waste: retrofit house insulation to consume less energy, recycle and repair things we would otherwise throw out,..

11-  Don't wait for government: most pols have been hypnotized by conventional neoconservative "Free Market" ideology. "Power down. Eat local food. Walk more. Travel less. Be a leader in you community and family. Challenge the petrostate." (emphasis added)

12- Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement: (better still, tear it up and recycle as toilet paper for the House of Commons.) It's really a no brainer, rather "constructive nationalism" in a world of future shortages. Who should get their hands on Canada's resources, Americans or Canadians? In a world of looming shortages, this is a definite no brainer!

             All in all, an insightful and rather well penned tirade. There are a few bloopers due to apparent sloppiness. James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis (the Earth seen as a living organism), is described as a climate scientist. He is, in reality, a physical chemist and inventor of scientific instruments. Worse, for the researcher or the activist wishing to validate or track down sources, all cited sources and further reading reccomendations are thrown together at the back of the text. This makes tracing sources difficult. On at least one occasion, I was not able to locate a cited source (not good, not good..) All told, a very good book, one I would recommend giving to young people who are beginning to worry about the world they are growing up in (high school or bright upper primary school).

unofficial mascot of the Tarsands extraction industry: Bertie, the albertosaur and his brood - the family that preys together, stays together..

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