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D A. Ryan
D A. Ryan

The greatest Astroturf of all time - Ethical oil

If there’s one thing that makes any environmentalists blood boil, its got to be the practice of “greenwashing” where companies try to sell themselves as “green” when they are anything but. Then there's "astroturfing" where a PR firm in the pay of a conglomerate creates a fake grass roots movement to further their own agenda (Countryside guardian an anti-wind farm group with links to the UK Nuclear industry is a classic example). But the promoters of the Canadian Tar Sands project have seriously pushed the boat out by attempting to label Tar sands oil as “ethical oil”. I realise that this is a bit of an old story, but I bring it up because it has got to count as the most cynical example of “greenwashing” I’ve every seen. I mean seriously their website  should come with a health warning, as it has to be seen to be believed. They make “newspeak” in 1984 look like an episode of spin city!

They have chosen to label the Tar sands as “ethical oil” on the basis that it is not “conflict oil” as well Canadians, aren’t they all friendly and green and everything? Well actually no! Much of the fossil fuels consumed in America (oil, gas and coal) comes from North of the border, as Canada compete with Venezuela for the title of America’s leading source of energy imports (and thus the primary source of America’s carbon addiction). In addition much of the Uranium that powers America (and Canada’s) nuclear reactors comes from Canadian mines. Northern Canada is also home to many large open cast mines for various minerals. I would also note that energy consumption of the average Canadian is actually higher than that of the average American  (7.4 toe for Canada against 7 for the US). Finally I would note that like any country Canada is made up of different provinces with very different regimes in each state. Alberta province, where the Tar sands are based, happens to be the most right wing state in the Union with the worst environmental record. Indeed they are often described as the “Canadian Texas”.

Should anyone reading this be unfamiliar with the whole tar sands controversy, tar sands are basically a mixture of moisture, soil, sand, clay and heavy oil. They are usually the consequence of oil escaping at some point in the past from its underground source rock and migrated up to the surface. Here it became mixed with the soil and also came under attack from the biosphere. Given a few more hundreds of thousands of years it would all get broken down into an unusable form (this is the same mechanism that has over the last 250 million years destroyed much of the oil that ever formed on this world, only a tiny fraction survived to the present day). Extracting oil from Tar sands, the world largest and most accessible deposits are in the Athabasca region of Northern Canada, is more of an open cast mining operation. This would involve tearing down large quantities of pristine old growth boreal forests, possibly an area the size of the England and Wales may ultimately be destroyed.

The major problem with the Tar sands is thus, the enormous environmental pollution caused by this mining and processing, see here for a summary of the problems it creates and see pictures of the destruction here. Or actually just go to Google Earth and pop in “Fort McMurray”. I don’t need to be any more specific than that, as they are literally creating a mess big enough to see from space! Also this processing consumes large quantities of energy, meaning you’re energy payback from oil sands (EROEI) isn’t nearly as good than you get with conventional oil (indeed it may prove to be an order of magnitude less). This also means you need a substantial source of energy to power you’re oil sands extraction process, and the carbon emissions resulting from this process are increased (some figures say Tars sands produces 20%  to four times the greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional oil, depending on who you ask). It also requires substantial quantities of water, both to aid in oil processing, but also to “flush” away the many chemicals contained within the associated tailings (which can include a toxic mix of known or suspected carcinogens, heavy metals, POP’s, arsenic, etc.)....this “flush” often seeing large amounts of sediment laden with toxins finding its way into mountain rivers and streams. In short if you think the conventional oil production is bad, Tar sands are much worse. An order of magnitude increase in Tar sands production will produce a significant spike in pollution (again in the middle of an boreal wilderness) and carbon dioxide levels (Guardian article on the Canadian governments to hide these facts here). It is no wonder that environmentalist recoil in horror.

So I think we can safely say that from an environmental prospective this “ethical oil” claim is completely unjustified, unless you consider destroying one of the world’s last great wildernesses while clubbing baby seals to death (another Canadian “pastime”) as “ethical”! But what about this claim that Canadian Tar Sands isn’t “conflict” oil? They put a picture of Hugo Chavez on one poster under the term “conflict oil” then imply that Canadian oil is conflict free. Let’s pick that one apart. Who exactly is Venezuela at war with? While they are having a few border disputes with Colombia, as far as I’m aware the country is not engaged in any formal conflict, nor significant informal conflict with any of his neighbours. Ironically of course Canada has troops serving in Afghanistan, whose presence there is ultimately funded in part by revenue raised by the Tar sands. So actually if you want to buy “non-conflict oil” my advice would be to give Hugo a call and the Canadians a miss.

The also accuse Hugo Chavez, in the poster, of promoting “forced labour”. While I’m not necessarily a fan of old Hugo, I think that is a gross misrepresentation of his regime, which has sought to redistribute the country’s oil wealth to the poor. By contrast a bunch of labour union supporters showed up at the Occupy Calgary camp  recently to highlight the problems they face with Alberta’s lax protections of employee rights. I also recall meeting during my travels a year or so ago in Canada, a local farmer who was ultimately in danger of loosing his land to the tar sands through a compulsory purchase order they we’re likely to hit him with. Pushing farmers and locals off their land so multinationals can exploit oil reserves (under the farmer's feet mind!) doesn’t quite fit in with the “ethical oil” image I think. In short you could easily reverse many of these posters and accuse Canada of being the warmongering nation with a dreadful environmental record who tramples on human rights and pushes people off their land.

Indeed reading through this “ethical oil” propaganda there seems to me to be a dangerous and bigoted undercurrent. They tar (oh! the irony!) all the OPEC countries with the same Saudi brush (awful of course tho the Saudi's human rights record is), ignoring the diverse nature of the many Middle East nations (and their attiudes to Islam or womens rights). And of course not all OPEC states are in the Middle East nor are they Muslim! And the world's largest oil producer? Russia!

So what these "Ethical oil" lot seem to be saying is that oil pumped by white anglo-saxons is ethically and morally superior to that pumped by those nasty evil foreigners with their dark skin, strange religions and funny languages. I've not come across such fascist crap and misinformed bigotry since I last saw a Mel Gibson film. And again ironically, if this is the intended point our “ethical oil” spinster’s are making, then even this is factually inaccurate. The bulk of the finance behind the Tar sands is coming not from Canada, but from abroad (economist article mentions that here). Chinese, Russian, Indian and American firms are indeed all major investors in the tar sands (see wiki page here for info and links on this). Indeed I would argue that the problem for the Canadians here is they are loosing control of the situation. Ultimately decisions on the Tar sands (how much will be produced and how bad the environmental mess which the Canadians will have to clean up afterwards) will be made in foreign countries by foreign multinationals.

In fact can I play this game too? I could for example come up with a poster labelling Canada brutal treatment of native Americans in past centuries, or indeed the present day (one tribe down river from the Tar sands (Fort Mckay) have had their water source polluted by Tar sands runoff with a growing cancer cell springing up) with Saudi Arabia who are so multicultural they actually prefer to hire workers from India or Pakistan  ;) Or how about their positive attitude towards women, while Canadian women are forced to drive their own cars, the Saudi’s provide their women with chauffeurs and male chaperons instead ;) Yes buy Saudi oil, the “ethical” oil!

Jokes aside, the fact is there is no such thing as “ethical oil”. The stuff that comes out of a hole in the ground in Canada is as dirty as the stuff that comes out of a hole in the ground in the Middle East, possibly dirtier in fact.

But we need those jobs here in Canada, the Tar sands supporters will say, if the tar sands aren’t promoted all those jobs will go abroad along with North America’s energy security. And how many jobs could be created if Canada exploited instead its vast renewable energy potential? North America has some of the best and most varied renewable resources on the planet, if only our American cousins would only get over their whole “real men don’t use solar panels” attitude. And if the point of tar sands oil is to improve north American energy security then why are they building pipelines to Texas and West Coast ports from the tar sands? That sort of implies that the bulk of the oil will ulitmately be exported, or at the very least if America wants the oil it will have to pay the market price (which could be high in the future).

But we need the Tar sands to rescue the world from peak oil, is the other argument. Again, as will all tar sands propaganda this one too falls flat. I’ve seen estimates for the maximum tar sands ranging from 1 million bbl/day to 8 million bbl/day with 5m bbl/day often been quoted as a “best guess”. However this is but 6% of the current global demand of around 80million bbl/day and even that 8m bbl/day figure (wildly optimistic thought it is) is but 8% of the projected 2030 demand figure for oil of 100million bbl/day. Were does the other 94-96% of the world’s oil come from?

Furthermore, again we have to consider the issue of EROEI. I’ve seen EROEI estimates for the tar sands ranging from 9 to 0.7 (with a ratio in the range of 3-7 being probably a more credible range of values), substantially worse than any existing oil fields (EROEI ranging from 10 - 100). Remember that because an IC engine is typically just 20-30% efficient (and the primary consumption path of oil is ultimately transport fuels) we need to achieve an EROEI of at least 5-3.3 just to break even energy wise (else our tar sands count as a net energy sink rather than a source).

Inevitably the above means we’ll need to divert huge quantities of natural gas to power the whole operation. Indeed its questionably if there is sufficient quantities of gas (or coal) to spare within the whole of North America - a fear that seems justified given recent talk about bringing in nuclear reactors to meet demand. When I first heard about this plan to use nukes to extract tar sands I assumed it was a hoax perpetrated by Republicans trying to yank Greenpeace’s chain, but unfortunately no its for real. Of course even a number of pro-nuclear campaigners aren’t entirely happy about this one, describing it to me as “perverse” and “an abuse of nuclear technology”. After all, it involves (as they see it) taking high grade zero-carbon nuclear energy and using it to produce a load of low grade carbon intensive energy! Would you not be better just building reactors closer to cities and generating electricity and heat they argue? When the nuclear lobby calls you environmental terrorists you know you’re goose is cooked! And of course I would point out, ridiculous as this idea is, it can only be sustained as long as we can keep feeding Uranium into the nuclear reactors. And who is going to pay the decommissioning costs of those reactors and what happens if one of them pops its cork in the middle of the Canadian Boreal forests?

While nuclear power would reduce the net carbon output from the Tar sands we are still looking at a situation where the tar sands will still produce much more greenhouse gases, both from disturbance to the eco system as well as from the oil itself and the refining and processing of it, compared to existing oilfields. A global policy of climate change mitigation and tar sands (or shale gas) extraction are simply not compatible.

The Tar sands are thus in summary not ethical, not eco friendly, not a solution to peak oil and arguably not even Canadian anymore! The only people who will ultimately gain from tar sands extraction are the shareholders of a small number of foreign multinational oil companies...or certainty greedy PR types happy to sell their souls and they're nation's credibility for a few (tar splattered) bucks.

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