Oilsands the wrong whipping boy

ALBERTA - The self-described environmental activist group Greenpeace is not letting up on its single-track mission to stop oilsands development.

The targets included Royal Dutch Shell and Norway's StatoilHydro, both of which are active in Alberta's oilsands, and held their annual meetings recently.

Given that the headlines coming out of the Shell meeting had to do with shareholder votes regarding executive pay and mentioned nothing of the oilsands, one surmises that Greenpeace's agenda of pressing the company on its oilsands intentions did not succeed.

The same story repeated itself in Norway, where the activist organization had brought forward a motion that would have seen StatoilHydro pull out from the oilsands. This, despite the support from a Swedish pension fund.

What's clear in both instances is that Greenpeace needs to get a better handle on how the global economy works, the economics of energy and the circumstances that have transformed the oilsands from being the tar that once lined canoes to an important source of energy.

"It's clear that all the environmental factors are of concern south of the border and around the world," says Roman Cooney, vice-president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"But when you have a nation that offers an improved, and improving, environmental performance, coupled with political and economic stability that will make us one of the best energy partners and providers in the world, it's easy to understand why StatoilHydro and Royal Dutch are here."

While the oilsands do have their environmental challenges, Greenpeace would be better served by acknowledging the real problem isn't the oil produced from the oilsands — it's the emissions from coal-fired electricity, not to mention the dinitrous oxide that is generated as part of the fertilizer production process.

U.S. President Barack Obama triumphantly announced new mileage standards for vehicles that will reduce dependence on oil by 1.4 million barrels a day by 2020 and save $30 billion — assuming gasoline prices average $2.25 per gallon (59 cents a litre).

Of course, the cost of the new cars will be higher, but the theory is that consumers will recover that, and more, in reduced fuel costs.

There is no question this initiative is long overdue. But here is the reality check: transportation-related emissions account for 28 per cent of what is spewed into the U.S. atmosphere.

In fact, making sure everyone's tires are properly inflated would achieve the same in terms of reducing emissions through efficiency gains as would adding ethanol to gasoline.

The bigger culprit is the amount of energy used by businesses, industry and households. And guess what? This relates more to electricity consumption than it does to gasoline, because half of U.S. electricity is generated by coal-fired plants.

The bigger culprit in the emissions game — at least for now — is China, which continues to build coal-fired power plants at a rate of one per week. The numbers suggest that if this trend continues, there will be more power plants in China by 2020 than in the rest of the world.

But of course, it's easier to target western-based companies in democratic countries than it is to go after government-controlled businesses in countries where transparency isn't exactly in evidence. Just ask Amnesty International about that.

As a result, it's the oilsands with its dead ducks that will likely continue to be the whipping boy for the energy sector. For Greenpeace, the fact the oilsands account for one-tenth of one per cent of global emissions is nothing more than an inconvenient statistic.

Perhaps it might help to look at things another way.

"As the CERA (Cambridge Energy Research Associates) report clearly demonstrates, oil will likely be the primary driver of growth for decades to come, even if the energy mix has a larger component of renewables," said Cooney.

It's a fact echoed in a book recently published by Jeff Rubin, the former chief economist of CIBC World Markets.

His book, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, effectively points out the link between global economic growth and oil. Much like the CERA study, Rubin is clear that oil and other hydrocarbons are going to be part of the global energy mix, whether Greenpeace likes it or not. But he also talks about the impact on the economy and consumers of the fact that the world's cheap oil reserves have already been discovered. This leaves the more expensive options such as the oilsands and the deep water pools offshore Brazil as being the primary sources of new reserves that are not controlled by national oil companies or their associated governments.

The bottom line in all this is that it's not as simple as saying the oilsands are bad, and production should stop. It is, as Rubin writes, part of a complex issue that carries with it global socioeconomic implications. Green-peace might be well-advised to take notice.


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