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Expect slow shift to low carbon, says oil exec

Top executives from four of North America's largest oil and gas corporations shared their visions of the future of energy at the GLOBE business convention in Vancouver yesterday afternoon.

So what will the global energy market look like in 40 years? According to them, there will be more renewable sources, stronger conservation efforts, more energy efficient technologies, and (not surprisingly) more than enough demand for continued use of fossil fuels.

Steve Snyder, president and CEO of TransAltra Corporation (which owns renewable and non-renewable power plants and generates $3 billion in annual revenue) said the shift to a low carbon economy is a "50-year issue."

"The reality is, and you've heard this mentioned, is that oil and gas and electricity will be here in 40 years, and they're still going to be used in large quantities. That's just being realistic."

"When we get responses like 'shut down the oil sands, kill coal, change all the world's lightbulbs, everyone ride a bike,' I do suggest it's time, let's all step back a bit, look at this more realistically and with a bit more common sense."

"The first hard truth is that global demand for energy is going to continue to increase," said Clarence Cazalot Jr., president and CEO of the Houston-based Marathon Oil Corp. "The second hard truth is. . . there's nothing that is gong to render fossil fuels obsolete tomorrow."

Cazalot also said dirtier fuels could be replaced by natural gas.

Greg Ebel, president and CEO of Spectra Energy, said that technological advances have allowed companies to get at natural gas stores (embedded in shale rock, through a a process called fracing that is now being studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) that were previously economically out of reach.

"In the last four years, we're seeing a 58 per cent increase in natural gas supplies," Ebel said. "So now we've got enough reserves in North America to last for about a century."

All four acknowledged that a lower carbon economy will include a greater mix of energy choices -- including wind, biomass, solar and hydro.

Steve Williams, chief operating officer for Suncor Energy Inc, the biggest player in the Canada's oil sands, said a successful national energy strategy would include government targets on the mix of energy as well as "specific targets around environmental impact."

While the oil sands "have a big environmental impact," Williams pointed out that Suncor was an early corporate adopters of a climate change action plan to address greenhouse gases at the point of production. "We were one of the first major companies to adopt a climate change action plan in an attempt to better manage greenhouse gas emissions," Williams said. "A key part of that was investing in energy efficiency. . . the oil sands industry has reduced the amount of carbon it emits from a barrel of oil produced by just under 40 per cent. Very few other industries or points of demand where we consume energy have improved that much."

"I'm not here to defend the status quo," he continued. "If our industry is to make a lasting contribution, and I think it has to, as part of the energy mix, then I think it needs to reduce and improve that environmental footprint."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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