Innovation and the greening of Alberta’s oil sands
Research Paper analysing efforts made by the Canadian petroleum industry to reduce its impact on the environment
The goal of this paper is twofold. Part I looks at the historical experience and illustrates how current "cleaner" sources of liquid fuels were anything but in the first stages of their development. Part II describes how Alberta's oil sands are being exploited and illustrates how "win-win-win" innovations are now taking place that are making this industry more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Media release :: 71% of Canadians think significant efforts have been made to limit the environmental impact of the oil sands
Opinion Poll :: Study on Canadians' Perceptions of Hydrocarbon Energy
A Plea for a Quebec-Alberta Dialogue :: Research Paper on the economic and political interests that Quebec and Alberta have in common (May 12, 2011)
|Majority back oil sands development if environmental impact limited: poll (The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2012)||Debate (in French) between Pierre Desrochers, MEI, and Steven Guilbeault, Équiterre (SRC Radio - Toronto, October 11, 2012).
Interview with Pierre Desrochers (AM 770 - Calgary, October 11, 2012)
|Interview with Pierre Desrochers (BNN, October 11, 2012)|
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Research Paper prepared by Hiroko Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers, associate researchers at the MEI.
Alberta's oil sands have been mired in controversy ever since forecasts of rapidly growing world demand for petroleum, rising crude oil prices, technical advances and political instability in other jurisdictions ushered their large-scale exploitation about a decade ago.
Whether supportive or critical, however, discussions of the subject typically lack a broader historical perspective on the environmental and social benefits of petroleum, and the longstanding capacity of human ingenuity to turn unpromising raw materials and polluting production residuals into valuable resources.
The goal of this paper is twofold. Part I looks at the historical experience and illustrates how current "cleaner" sources of liquid fuels were anything but in the first stages of their development. Rather than simply turning their back on these raw materials, however, early oil industry pioneers forged ahead with innovative responses and eventually managed to deliver significant economic, environmental and social benefits.
Petroleum remains our least undesirable source of transportation fuels and feedstock for countless synthetic products ranging from medical instruments made of plastic and detergents to vitamins and disinfectants. Replacing products made out of petroleum by alternatives grown on agricultural land or extracted from the wild would have severe environmental consequences. While many critics describe our reliance on crude oil as an addiction, in reality it is much more similar to a dependence on healthy food. After all, during the petroleum age, humanity's overall standard of living drastically increased as did our life expectancy and overall health.
Among other benefits, petroleum- derived products removed horses from cities where their excrements and dead bodies were major public health threats. They made less dependable and productive mules and horses redundant on farms, in the process also redirecting the portion of the crops they consumed (perhaps as much as 20%) towards other uses. Petroleum-based products were also essential in drastically increasing agricultural yields which, in turn, allowed much marginal agricultural land to revert to a wild state. By greatly facilitating the movement of food over long distances, they also helped eradicate famine in most parts of the world as regions that experienced bad years were increasingly able to rely on those that had experienced good ones.
While not perfect, petroleum-based products were clearly superior alternatives to the technologies they displaced and are still superior to the heavily-subsidized alternatives now touted as substitutes. For instance, wind and solar power can only deliver small and intermittent volumes of electricity. They are useless in virtually all segments of the transportation sector and provide no feedstock to other lines of work. Biofuels for their part have always been limited in terms of potential supply and can only constitute a small fraction of the fuel used in internal combustion and diesel engines without seriously damaging them.
No current energy and synthetic feedstock source or combination of sources are presently technically superior and greener alternatives to crude oil. Lifting and maintaining billions of humans out of poverty is currently unthinkable without the continued exploitation of petroleum resources.
Part II of this paper describes how Alberta's oil sands are being exploited and illustrates how "win-win-win" innovations are now taking place that are making this industry more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
That an increasing portion of our future petroleum supply will have to come from what are now described as unconventional sources cannot be held against their development. In the oil sands as with earlier petroleum deposits, human ingenuity has delivered and can continue to deliver ever greater output ever more efficiently, in the process providing both economic and environmental benefits.
Oil sand extraction provides a valuable resource for which there are currently no better alternatives. Today's production challenges in Alberta are not fundamentally different from those of earlier times. They should therefore be tackled creatively rather than considered insurmountable.
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