Expansion of tar sands oil is not central to U.S. energy supply – despite new report conclusion

Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) consulting firm released a new report today about growth in the Canadian tar sands. The report acknowledges many of the environmental problems with tar sands, but then still somehow concludes that we need this source of fuel. How the report gets from point A (tar sands are rife with environmental problems) to point B (tar sands are necessary to American energy future) is not clear.  The study says that tar sands oil has moved from "fringe to center" of US energy supply. Yet, with around 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil coming into the United States, it is the potential expansion to several million barrels per day that is of most concern and expansion of tar sands oil is definitely not at the center of U.S. energy supply nor yet increasingly important to global energy security.

The CERA report implies that the U.S. needs tar sands oil as a transportation fuel for energy security reasons and the same rationale is being put forward by others to justify exploration of other dirty fuels such as oil shale deposits in the U.S. west and the development of liquid coal technology. The energy security rationale for using tar sands and other unconventional fuels as a "bridge" is exaggerated and does not take climate security risks of moving towards higher carbon fuels into account. Further, we do not need tar sands expansion and development of other unconventional fuels - we can meet our transportation fuel needs and limit our dependence on oil generally - through fuel efficiency, conservation, smart growth, plug in hybrids using renewables, and other transportation solutions.

The report focuses to a large extent on the high greenhouse gas emissions from the energy-intensive production of Canadian tar sands. Tar sands oil production produces three to five times the carbon dioxide pollution as conventional oil on a per barrel basis just looking at production. In 2007, roughly 1.2 million barrels per day of oil from tar sands was produced in Canada, with approximately 75% exported to refineries in the United States. By 2015, production is expected to grow to between 2 to 4.5 million barrels per day based on industry and government forecasts. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with these production levels is estimated to be 90 - 320 MMT CO2e by 2015, continuing to make tar sands operations one of Canada's largest and fastest growing sources of emissions.

Using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to reduce emissions in the tar sands is being touted as a solution - both by Canada and by this report. But CCS for tar sands is untested and capturing greenhouse gases the geographically diverse sources of emissions throughout the tar sands make it expensive. CCS also does not address tailpipe emissions from the end use of tar sands oil (80 - 90% of lifecycle emissions come from the tailpipe since tar sands is primarily used for transportation fuel) or the many other environmental problems of the tar sands. CCS does not solve the cumulative carbon burden problem. Even if fuels from unconventional resources can be made "no worse than crude" on a per gallon basis, the unconventional resources such as tar sands, oil shale and coal, are so huge that exploiting them for liquid fuels produces an unmanageably large cumulative carbon emissions load.

Of course, NRDC is concerned with the impacts of tar sands oil extraction beyond just the high global warming pollution. Tar sands oil is strip mined and drilled from Canada's Boreal forest, a huge carbon reservoir and one of the last large intact ecosystems on earth.  Tar sands oil production requires 2 to 5 barrels of water for each barrel of bitumen extracted, creates huge tailings waste ponds, threatens the health of downstream Aboriginal communities, and is likely to cause the loss of millions of migratory birds.  Environmentalists, local communities and others are asking that the existing tar sands operations be cleaned up and that a moratorium be put on development of new tar sands operations. Specifically, they are asking that energy and water use are significantly reduced, toxic tailings ponds cleaned up, leakage into the Athabasca River eliminated, downstream water quality and health monitored and protected, global warming pollution drastically reduced and critical wildlife habitat protected. 

CERA acknowledges these many other pollution, health and habitat destruction issues, and yet still comes back to the conclusion that tar sands expansion is important to the United States. Tar sands oil expansion is not a necessary part of our future transportation and energy solutions. We have other alternatives to oil, especially to tar sands oil, and we have an Administration in the United States that is starting to provide the incentives and programs to encourage the very alternatives that will help us move beyond our dependence on oil.