Title: Conference Board defends oil sands development

Sub-title: A new Conference Board publication concludes that Alberta’s oil sands should not be singled out as the primary source for Canada’s poor record on greenhouse gas emissions.


It’s no secret that Canada’s poor environmental performance is becoming a major problem for the country’s oil industry. Alberta’s tar sands developers, in particular are being increasingly singled out as a key culprit. Canadians think of themselves as environmentalists however on a per capita basis, they rank as the world’s third-worst polluters, with each producing an average of 23 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually.


However the tar sands lobby got some good news recently when the Conference Board released a paper that provides stakeholders good arguments that they can use to take on their critics with. According to Len Coad and Glen Hodgson, the paper’s coauthors, tar sands development, which Greenpeace characterizes as “one of the dirtiest and most damaging ways to get oil out of the ground ever devised,” is being singled out unfairly for its contribution to Canadian pollution.


The reports coauthors conclude that: “It is much easier to pursue and criticize a few private oil sands producers operating in a neighboring democratic nation, than to criticize state oil companies operating in weak democratic or authoritarian nations,” they write. “More fundamentally, frustrating production by a few firms is easier than convincing millions of consumers to change their lifestyles and driving habits.”


Hodgson and Coad believe that any comprehensive climate change plan needs to strike a balance between the environmental degradation caused by the energy producers and by consumers. “The oil sands produce about 5 percent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions,” they write. “In comparison, road transportation, primarily due to consumer demand for light-duty trucks, including SUVs, accounted for approximately 18 percent of total Canadian GHG emissions in 2007.” The solution they argue is for both industry and drivers to do their share to keep pollution numbers in line.


Coad and Hodgson acknowledge that oil sands development has generated numerous environmental concerns related to land use, water use and air quality. But the industry’s Achilles heal they say is the related greenhouse gas production, which is expected to skyrocket during the coming years as the tar sands activity steps up in response to projected oil demand increases.


However Coad and Hodgson argue that oil sands production does not lead to that much more pollution than conventional oil. “On a wells-to-wheels” basis, (i.e. through the full chain of production, shipping refining and consumption) GHGs per barrel from oil sands crude are between 7 percent and 21 percent higher than the lowest emitting crude oil currently used in the United States,” they argue.


That said, convincing Canadians to look the other way on the tar sands pollution front is unlikely to be too difficult. According to Greenpeace, Canada’s record on the environmental front, things are getting worse not better. Despite the country’s signature of the Kyoto accord, Canadian greenhouse emissions rose by 26.2 percent between 1990 and 2007. Oil sands production generated $37.8 billion in revenues during 2008 and slated is to rise significantly during coming years. No one wants to be the first to suggest that we forego that kind of money.





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