Smarter Living: Energy

As we continue to appease our addiction by searching for oil from "friendly" countries, several exotic-sounding options having fallen under the spotlight-in particular, tar sands (euphemistically known as "oil sands"), liquid coal and oil shale. None of these names is familiar nor do they sound like something you'd want to pump into your gas tank. So what exactly are these fuels and what makes them dirtier than other sources, including oil drilled the old fashioned way? To understand these fuels and their impacts better, we turned to Elizabeth Shope, an Advocate in NRDC's International Program with a focus on tar sands.

Q: Which fuels are dirty and which aren't? Are they all used to create gasoline and diesel?

ES: NRDC defines "dirty fuels" as tar sands, oil shale, and liquid coal, all of which have devastating extraction impacts, and also cause more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil—both looking at their production emissions and at the full lifecycle of the fuel.

All three fuels can be turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and a range of other products, but not without causing tremendous air and water pollution and destruction to the earth - where they are mined, in their transportation, and in turning them into usable products.

That said, there are many other fuels that are also unsustainable and cause pollution; that's why we need to work on transitioning to a clean energy future in which we decrease our energy consumption and obtain the energy we need from the wind, the sun, advanced sustainable biofuels technology, and other clean sources that will never run out.

Q: Gas prices have remained stable and relatively low for the last two years, so what is the need for these fuels?

ES: The fact is, we don't need these fuels. We can reduce oil consumption by increasing fuel efficiency standards, and greater use of hybrid cars, renewable energy, and environmentally sustainable biofuels. What's called "smart growth" – how we design our communities – is also a very important element in meeting our transportation needs.

And in fact, fuels like tar sands won't help reduce gas prices or make them more stable. Tar sands are so expensive to produce that gas prices have to be high in order for them to be profitable. They also can't help with stabilizing gas prices in the case of a disruption to oil shipments because each new tar sands project requires huge infrastructure and capital investments, so it takes years for new tar sands projects to come on-line – it's not as though there is loads of spare tar sands oil just waiting to be put through the pipelines.

Q: Why are we getting fuel in these ways rather than traditional oil and gas drilling?

ES: With good reason, there's a lot of concern about energy security, and about wanting to get oil from here in the U.S., or at least from "friendly countries" – like Canada. Unfortunately, most of what we have in the U.S. and Canada is dirty, risky oil – from offshore drilling, from tar sands and other dirty fuels.

When you ask the question "Do we want dirty oil from a friendly country, or clean(er) oil from a hostile country?" people might be tempted to choose dirty oil from a friendly country. But what we really need to be asking is, "How can we decrease our oil demand so that we don't need to make no-win decisions like this?" Because the dirty oil is really dirty.

Consider the extraction impacts from tar sands. Canada's Boreal forest is being destroyed and the water downstream from the tar sands developments is contaminated with high levels of toxic metals like arsenic and lead. We've seen abnormal incidents of fish with tumors and significantly elevated rates of cancer (likely linked to petroleum production) in communities downstream. Furthermore, thousands of ducks have perished in toxic waste ponds.

Q: What are tar sands? What are they being used for?

ES: The tar sands that we are currently using in the United States are found in Alberta, Canada. Underlying an area of the Boreal forest approximately the size of Florida, tar sands are a combination of sand, clay, water and a thick, black, tar-like substance called bitumen.

The bitumen is extracted from the ground either with open pit mining, or by heating the ground up for several months with steam so that the bitumen melts and can be pumped out—a process referred to as "in situ."

The U.S. consumes about two thirds of what is being produced, but in order to send the tar sands to the U.S., it must either be upgraded into "synthetic crude oil," similar to conventional crude oil, or diluted so that it can be sent via pipelines to refineries that lie mainly in the Midwest. At the refineries, the synthetic crude oil and bitumen are turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other petroleum products.

Q: Would liquid coal be cleaner than regular coal? Could your car run on it?

ES: Regular coal is dirty, but liquid coal is far worse. In addition to the typical coal extraction impacts such as mountain top removal, you have to turn coal (a solid) into a liquid (gasoline), which is an incredibly greenhouse-gas polluting process – even if you capture and sequester a lot of the CO2 emissions.

Your car could hypothetically run on liquid coal, but you'd be doubling your car's impact on our climate – at a time when we need to be reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention, liquid coal isn't currently being commercially produced so you might be hard pressed to find a place to fill up with liquid coal.

Q: What is oil shale? Is it already being extracted?

ES: Oil shale is a sedimentary rock found in vast quantities in the Green River Formation, which lies beneath portions of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming – some of the most important wildlife habitat in the country. When heated to extreme temperatures, oil shale can be converted into liquid petroleum, which can be further refined into transportation fuel. It is also found and extracted in relatively small quantities in Estonia and several other countries, but in the U.S. it has not been commercialized.

Q: Is the air pollution impact—and in particular the global warming impact—of these fuels worse than gasoline and diesel derived from traditional methods?

ES: Yes, both the air pollution and the global warming impact are a lot worse. Because tar sands has more sulfur, nitrogen and metals in it than conventional oil, upgrading and refining it causes a lot more air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Refinery communities like Port Arthur, Texas – that could soon be refining a lot more tar sands should the Keystone XL pipeline be approved and built – are already unable to comply with their air pollution regulations, so dirtier fuel is the last thing they need in their refineries.

The extraction of these fuels is also much more energy and greenhouse gas-intensive than conventional oil. On a lifecycle basis – that is, extraction all the way through combustion – tar sands causes about 20 percent more global warming pollution than conventional oil. Oil shale and liquid coal are even worse, causing nearly 50 percent more global warming pollution and over double the lifecycle emissions of conventional oil, respectively.

Q: With what we've learned from the Gulf spill disaster is deep sea drilling as dirty as tar sands, liquid coal and the like?

ES: It's hard to make a direct comparison of the fuels because each comes with a unique set of problems. Right after the Gulf disaster, the Albertan government argued that tar sands would be safer than deep sea drilling and, should a problem arise, a pipeline spill would be much easier to contain than an offshore spill. Even if that were true, the other impacts of dirty fuels production would make them not worth it.

But then, in the course of the summer, there was a tar sands spill of over 800,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River, a natural gas pipeline explosion that killed around half a dozen people and burned down several dozen homes, and several other pipeline spills that got a fair amount of press. These spills turned the tables; pipeline safety has now become a much higher profile issue.

The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta to Texas would go right through the Ogallala Aquifer, and residents in that area are terrified about what would happen to their farmland and their drinking water should the Ogallala become contaminated by a tar sands spill. So, I think what we've really learned from all these incidents is that we need to be moving away from fossil fuels, and transitioning to a clean energy economy.

Learn More Stop Dirty Fuels

last revised 8/15/2011

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