Set aside, for the moment, the very reasonable doubts about whether carbon capture and storage (CCS) is safe and effective, affordable, and capable of rapid deployment. Even if CCS could be implemented rapidly and cheaply, it would not render the oil sands acceptable from a climatic perspective. The reasons for that are as follows:
- CCS can only be used to capture greenhouse gasses emitted in concentrated form from large facilities. Not all oil sands emissions are of this type.
- Even at large facilities, CCS is only expected to capture about 80-85% of emissions.
- The emissions from burning the fuels being produced will not be captured. Even with fuels originating from oil sands bitumen, these are the bulk of total emissions.
The oil sands are touted as a resource equivalent to a second Saudi Arabia. This is the last thing the world needs. There are only so many fossil fuels we can burn while still having a decent shot of avoiding catastrophic climate change. As a result, fossil fuels are an industry with no long-term future. This is indirectly demonstrated by the shamefully weak greenhouse gas mitigation targets adopted by Alberta. They know that even if CCS development progresses perfectly, it will not let them bring their emissions in line with what is sustainable. That’s why they can only hope to have reduced emissions to 14% below 2005 levels by 2050, when the world as a whole needs to have cut them to around 80% below 1990 levels, and rich places like Canada will need to have cut by even more.
There is also the issue of declining energy return on investment (EROI) and the perpetuation of oil dependency. Right now, the global economy is a fossil fuel junky. This cannot be sustained. Starting to depend heavily on alternative sources of oil, such as the oil sands, is the equivalent of starting to shoot up between your toes, because the veins in your arms have collapsed. It is not a far-thinking or effective way to deal with your quandary. The solution is to find a new way to sustain yourself. At best, the oil sands are a significant distraction from doing that.
[Update: 8 March 2010]. BuryCoal.com is a site dedicated to making the case for leaving coal, along with unconventional oil and gas, underground.