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Could Alberta's 'Tar' Pave the Road to a Green Canada?

Steps to an oil sands we can live with. First in a Tyee Solutions Society series.

By Geoff Dembicki 18 Jun 2012 |

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee Solutions Society (TSS).

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society (TCI). Funding was provided by Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and TCI neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting.

John Nenniger believes he can achieve something many think impossible. He intends to make Alberta's oil sands legitimately "green." He believes it can be done without harming the provincial or Canadian economies. Quite the opposite: oil sands producers, and the country as a whole, could actually get even richer.

"There's this cliché that the environment is tugging in one direction and economics are taking you in another," he observes. 

Nenniger, along with many others I spoke to in researching this series, believes instead that the acrimonious "pro-oil" vs. "pro-environment" divide obscures a promising, if under-explored, possibility: that real-world policies and technology could one day reconcile the vast wealth of Alberta's oil sands resource with the survival of its Boreal forests and the stability of the global climate.

The small company Nenniger founded and now leads, N-Solv Corp, claims to be demonstrating that path with technology could virtually eliminate water usage and carbon emissions for new oil sands operations -- and make them twice as profitable.

The oil sands are often portrayed as a single environmental issue. In reality, they represent many. After scores of conversations with men and women like Nenniger over the past four months, I chose to broadly divide the industry's impacts into two categories: the regional and the atmospheric.

The physical footprint that oil sands development has stamped on Northern Alberta is hard to overstate: a mined area larger than the city of Edmonton; enough toxic waste produced each day to fill Toronto's Skydome.

My reporting in the months ahead will explore what's being tried, tested and thought about to reduce the regional physical impacts that have radically transformed an enormous swathe of northern Alberta's wilderness and threaten a watershed one-fifth the size of the entire country.

Yet these daunting challenges demand a different set of policy and technology solutions than another issue of global impact and concern: carbon.

How Canada deals with the soaring emissions of greenhouse gases from bitumen production is in many ways a bellwether of our ability to transition to a sustainable future.

At the same time, those emissions are increasingly being recognized as a major business liability that, if not adequately addressed, could sink the economics of the oil sands for good -- and with them, an important driver of the Canadian economy. 

For those reasons, the first series of stories in this year-long Tyee Solutions Society inquiry will deal almost exclusively with carbon.

Threat assessment

My reporting started with the premise that continued oil sands development need not necessarily be incompatible with a low-carbon Canadian economy -- depending on its pace and scale, and what else we do in the meantime.

As it turned out, months of reporting bolstered a provocative counterintuition: that given the right technology and government policies, bitumen production could actually speed up the transition to a climate-friendly economy.

Let me unpack that statement a little bit.

As things stand now, oil sands expansion may be the largest single obstacle to achieving Canada's stated climate-change emission targets, not to mention an international symbol of our planet's damaging addiction to fossil fuels. Yet even under the wildest growth projections, the oil sands will not single-handedly ruin the climate. Coal is a much bigger global culprit.

That fact might be used to argue that there's no point to limiting oil sands development at all. So that's where we'll start, by taking up that devil's argument and asking the taboo question: Should we bother restraining the oilsands?  

One thing that pretty much every climate policy reformer wants to see is a market price on the nation's greenhouse emissions. Remarkably unheralded is a widely held consensus within Canada's mainstream business community on precisely the same point. My second installment will reveal how and why some of Alberta's leading, and most-polluting, oil sands companies are open backers of a national carbon tax on their product.

Almost as unknown beyond Alberta's borders is the fact that the province actually enacted North America's first industrial carbon tax, a holy grail for many climate campaigners, way back in 2007. Yet mounting evidence now suggests the levy might actually be stalling climate progress on the prairies. My third report will explain the perverse outcome, and how Alberta might reclaim its policy leadership.

Breakthroughs and big money

But what if a price on carbon isn't enough to trim Canada's emissions? I've taken the skeptic's approach, and assumed we'll also need new technology, and just as important, the money to fund the nascent green energy economy -- the subject I'll look at in part four.

Government of course isn't the only factor in the climate solutions equation. Green energy breakthroughs or large-scale innovations by oil sands operators themselves could someday have a big impact on Alberta's carbon footprint. Precisely how big though, and whether improving the industry is worth the time and money, is the subject of part five of my series.

If the future calls into question the prospects for the oil sands industry, it does the same for the multi-billion dollar support that provincial and federal governments are advancing for capture and storage technology, a risky attempt to reduce bitumen's carbon load -- and its marketplace stigma.

Installment six will discover that there may be big enough promise to warrant those huge subsidies, but not for the reasons most often publicly debated.

I'll conclude with a detailed look at how the oil sands fit into the rest of federal climate policy. Again the results may surprise, as we discover what national policymakers could learn from their Alberta counterparts and the oil sands industry itself.  

Beyond deadlock

Researching this series involved extensive interviews with Ivy League academics, industry think tanks, environmental watchdogs, government experts and oil sands majors like Cenovus and Suncor. These interviews were augmented by on the ground reporting from Calgary and Edmonton.  

Virtually everyone I met with was tired of the sterile exchange of mutual suspicions among oil sands boosters and bashers. They longed for an informed discussion on real solutions.

As Tyee editor David Beers writes today, that narrative of transition to a sustainable energy future must be built on hard evidence and informed opinion, and my reporting project launched today seeks to be of service in that regard.

These seven stories by no means attempt to define the steps Alberta and Canada need to take to realize a low-carbon future. Rather, I hope they can contribute to starting that much-needed national conversation.

Tomorrow: Why the oil patch will learn to love green: Surprising voices from the hydrocarbon industry.  [Tyee]

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