A Case For Changing the Way We Assess National Fuel Supplies – Part One

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Green, Public Policy

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is fierce in some quarters, led by environmentalists implacably opposed to the venture on the grounds that it will encourage further development of Canadian tar sands deposits. Even the White House has seen protests outside its doors as objectors have sought to persuade President Obama to rule against it.

Their argument is that the energy used in the extraction of the oil from tar deposits makes tar sand oil among the most carbon-intensive of fuel sources. The debate is not helped by competing reports using differing terms of measure. One analysis suggests tar sands emissions could be as high as 82 percent greater than that of average crude refining in the US, on a well-to-time basis, although the EU has recently given tar sands a 22 percent higher carbon content than conventional crude.

(Before we get inundated with comments, yes, I have seen assessments as high as 2.5 times the level of conventional US crude, as we say it varies widely, but what is not in disagreement is that it carries a heavy carbon payload). In addition, opposition groups claim, with some justification, that previous and current extraction sites have been guilty of:

  • Destruction of the boreal forest ecosystem
  • Potential damage to the Athabasca watershed
  • The release of greenhouse gases
  • Heavy consumption of natural gas
  • The creation of toxic tailings ponds

But if we want a balanced argument, then we should adopt a common set of criteria for making judgments about fuel sources; otherwise, we are merely putting ourselves at the whim of the most motivated and vocal interest group. If we are looking at the total carbon footprint of fuel sources to make value judgments about their desirability, then it should be fairly applied to all sources.

Continued in Part Two later today.

–Stuart Burns

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