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.