Boreal Burial

As is customary, President Obama will make his first state visit to Canada this week. Prime Minister Harper will no doubt be waiting eagerly. There is a lot to talk about.

Energy security will be high on both leaders' list. To quote President Obama's predecessor, America is addicted to oil. And Canada, the gentle, friendly neighbor from the North can provide it. Lots of it. When tar sands are included in the resource base, Canada is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil wealth. Now, President Obama started his term on a stronger environmental footing than many, if not all, previous presidents, directing his agencies to pave the way towards cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. What will he make of the Canadian tar sands, which are turned into oil in one of the most environmentally abusive and greenhouse gas intensive processes in use today?

In talking to the CBC yesterday, the president was well aware of the high carbon footprint associated with tar sands oil, and appeared committed to address it. What can be done about all the additional carbon dioxide from tar sands production and processing? The answer for tar sands proponents is to bury it underground in geologic reservoirs. A 21st century solution. Or is it? The answer is not quite that simple for the tar sands unfortunately.

First, although Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) technology is available today to begin deployment today in some industrial sectors, the tar sands pose unique challenges. The reason is very eloquently summarised in a recent report written by an expert task force for the Alberta and the Federal governments:

"However, oil sands operations are very diverse (both geographically and technically) and only a small portion of the CO2 streams are currently amenable for CCS due to both the size of emissions streams and the concentrations. The problem is that lower concentration or smaller emission streams are more costly to capture because of the additional unit capital and operating costs (including energy use) associated with the capture, separation, and purification processes. The earliest oil sands opportunities are the bitumen upgrading facilities that use steam methane reforming or gasification technology and which produce higher concentration CO2 streams"

In other words, many of the golden rules of CCS are violated: there are many emission sources within a plant instead of one large one; plants are not standardized, with each utilizing slightly different technology; only one plant today uses gasification which produces a highly concentrated stream that is more amenable to capture; the diversity of locations makes investing in and building a pipeline more challenging. Is CCS then not a hope for the tar sands? It could be, and it should be a required practice to clean up existing operations - but it is not by any means an easy application of the technology or a foregone conclusion.  CCS in the tar sands is more challenging than in the power sector, and we should be thinking very carefully about when, and if, it might be making a material difference to the carbon footprint of tar sands oil. Also, regardless of how much carbon could be reduced from its production, we are also still left with the downstream emissions from its combustion by cars, trucks and planes, unlike the power sector where the final electrons have been stripped of most of their carbon. 

Second, production of oil from tar sands is wrought with a host of other environmental problems - greenhouse gases are only part of the worry, and CCS can barely absolve the sands' other sins. If President Obama were to take the trip to Fort McMurray as I did just over a year ago to tour the scene of the crime, he would hard pressed not to be as shocked and appalled as I was. No amount of reading can prepare you for the real thing. From deforestation, strip mining, waterway pollution and huge freshwater withdrawals to toxic air emissions, wildlife disturbance and severe disruption of indigenous communities and their environment, this tarry El Dorado can scarcely fit inside the technological cure confession box. This is not to say that technology cannot significantly improve current practices. It can, and it should, on many of these problematic fronts. But this is no slam dunk, especially when the driver for improvement is a post hotly contested by... the free market and the regulatory authorities of Alberta. It hardly fills one with confidence.

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps most important, point: it would be short sighted of the U.S. to sign off on the tar sands as environmentally acceptable by investing in technological development and improvement, either domestically only, or in cooperation with Canada. The heart of the problem with tar sands is adequate regulation, oversight and enforcement. The track record to date leaves a great deal to be desired, to put it very mildly. No matter how hard Mr. Harper tries to sell the process as modern and benign, the U.S. should be taking the lead in enforcing adequate protection measures for a treasure that does not just belong to Alberta or Canada but to the whole planet and to future generations, one of the world's last undisturbed ecosystems: the Boreal Forest. It is U.S. demand that is driving its destruction. Now it is time for the U.S. to assume responsibility for its protection too. Offloading the responsibility for good stewardship to the Canadian authorities and looking away would be a big mistake. 

The answer lies not in carbon dioxide burial or other technological fixes, but in the very solutions that President Obama has prudently and repeatedly stressed for both their environmental and economic benefits. Clean energy sources and fuels. Efficient cars. The boreal forest itself is highly skilled at sequestering carbon - if only we let it be.