Steven Chu on the oil sands

Canada Goose goslings (Branta canadensis) - Beside the Ottawa River

Apparently, Energy Secretary Steven Chu thinks that technology will somehow make oil sands extraction compatible with climatic stability. While the The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was quick to praise his statement, it is wrong for a series of reasons. When it comes to emissions from the extraction and upgrading of bitumen, many are to dispersed to be compatible with carbon capture and storage (CCS), even if it does emerge as a safe, effective, and affordable technology. More importantly, about 85% of the emissions associated with oil derived from the Athabasca oil sands are generated when the fuels are burned. On one hand, that means that oil from that source isn’t enormously dirtier than oil from other sources (when considering only greenhouse gas emissions). On the other, it isn’t really the relative dirtiness of fuels that will determine how much warming we experience, but rather the cumulative quantity of greenhouse gasses added to the atmosphere. Climatic stability depends on keeping most of the carbon in coal and unconventional oil buried: not putting it into fuels that will be burned in the atmosphere, with waste products emerging to warm the planet.

Chu is a good enough scientist to realize that we cannot square the circle of unrestrained hydrocarbon usage and climatic stability. Unfortunately, it seems that politics still haven’t advanced to the point where not using fossil fuel resources is seriously contemplated. That is short-sighted and a shame, not least because it perpetuates the development and emergence of techological and economic systems that are fundamentally unsustainable. Rather than coveting the hydrocarbon resources of western Canada, North American leaders need to get serious about harnessing the renewable resources of the continent, while cutting total energy consumption towards the point where it can be renewably provided.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Steven Chu on the oil sands”

  1. One can only hope that people like Chu are being more helpful behind the scenes than in their public pronouncements.

  2. Gas from tarsands ‘dirtiest’ alternative, Gore says

    “Gasoline made from the tarsands would give a Toyota Prius the carbon footprint of a General Motors Hummer. And to go for the dirtiest possible alternative, that vastly increases the amount of global warming pollution at a time when the world is desperately trying to reach an agreement to reduce that pollution, is obviously not the right way to go,” Gore told CTV’s Canada AM.

    “I understand that a lot of money is at stake, but often the choice we have to make comes down to whether we’re focused only on short-term profits at the expense of the health of the planet and the security for our children, (and) at the end of the day that’s not really a difficult choice.”

  3. As Chu says, he is a “big believer in technology”. Regarding carbon capture and storage technology, he said this in the runup to the Copenhagen negotiations: “Energy efficiency is the lowest cost solution, but CCS is not far behind”.

    An example of what he’s talking about is the CCS process American Electric Power developed for its Mountaineer plant in Virginia with help from Chu’s DOE: CEO Mike Morris was all ready to build at scale a coal plant that would capture 90% of its CO2 until he realized Congress was not going to put a price on CO2 emissions and his regulator would not allow him to pass on the 2 cent per kWhr extra cost CCS would add to the cost of electricity to his customers, so he cancelled. See:

    The best book on carbon capture and storage I’ve seen is Capturing Carbon, by Robin Mills. People with opinions about the possibilities of this technology would do well to read it.

  4. I think there is a lot of reason to be skeptical about the viability of CCS.

    It’s not clear that CO2 can be stored safely and indefinitely underground. It’s not clear the technology can be deployed at a large enough scale to have an impact on global CO2 emissions. Finally, it’s not clear whether burning fossil fuels and sequestering the greenhouse gas pollution will actually be cheaper than using alternatives like renewables.

    If renewables are cheaper and safer, they seem far preferable to CCS.

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