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A World Without Oil?

by Archives April 7, 2009

The thought of the world running out of oil seems distant, almost absurd to most, especially when we look at the tremendous amount of wealth it has brought nations across the globe, notably Canada’s own province of Alberta.
However, the recent takeover of Petro-Canada by Suncor Energy Inc. pushes the death sentence even closer than it had already been. In fact, the merging of our once national oil giant with avid Albertan oil barons reaffirms that our country has further stripped itself of the little left energy sovereignty it had. However this also confirms that the rush for excavating one of the dirtiest fossil fuels will intensify with renewed vigour, at the detriment of Canada’s ailing ecosystem.
In fact, even though Petro-Canada chanted the hymn of nationalization 25 years ago (with slogans such as “Canada First” and “Petro-Canada: It’s Ours”), it has now gravitated, with the help of Suncor, ever more comfortably into the free market system, determined to satisfy the insatiable thirst of American interests.
What is most troubling about this whole scenario is that Canada has effectively become an energy “satellite” – with a population that has surrendered its resources to a type of modern-day colonizer, or simply put, a foreign power. Instead of effectively supplying the people of its nation (92 per cent of Quebec’s oil is imported), Canada prefers to redirect its pipelines south to better satisfy our neighbours’ energy addiction. Further, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) succeeds in really turning our nation into a colony by imposing, through the proportionality clause, that Canadians give the United States privileged access to Canada’s oil and natural gas – even in periods of shortages.
But these irrational export obligations are far from being the end of the problem. This whole notion that growth can go on forever – this presumed endless highway of oil – has forced our country to rely, or become utterly dependent, on one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet, and this, just to “keep the engine burning.”
The fact of the matter is that Alberta’s oil sands do not even contain oil. Also called extra heavy oil, unconventional oil or dirty oil, the tar sands are rather deposits of bitumen, which is a highly viscous black oil (a mix of water, clay and sand) that cannot flow unless it is heated or diluted (with lighter hydrocarbons). The production of such a resource is an extremely energy-intensive process, and is entirely fuelled by natural gas. We are thus using a tremendous amount of relatively clean energy to create a very dirty one.
Dirty oil has not inherited its name for nothing. Bitumen extraction is reported to release at least three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the conventional crude oil extraction. One barrel of conventional light oil emits 28 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while the tar sands ratio bumps up to 85 kg/CO2. Alberta’s tar sands are Canada’s single biggest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, with some 33 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted every year (which accounts for five per cent of Canada’s total carbon emissions). The province’s industrial sector alone is responsible for the 40 per cent increase in greenhouse gases in the whole of Canada, which help to understand why Canada has persistently defaulted on its Kyoto targets for the last 15 years.
In addition to the air pollution, the water necessities of the tar sands operations are absolutely absurd, especially considering that there are more and more concerns about a global potable water shortage. Because it takes three barrels of fresh water to make one barrel of oil from the bituminous sands, the process withdraws enough water from the Athabasca River to respond to the needs of two million people. But this is not the worst of all. Ninety per cent of this water ends up in enormous tailing ponds (basically an area of toxic waste) that are retained by dams, which leak regularly in the river, pouring in tons of petrochemicals that are as harmful to the marine life as to humans. In fact, cancer rates and rare diseases have been on the increase around the area of tar sands exploitation.
Oil companies in Alberta are now producing some 1.7 million barrels a day, with over 173 billion barrels in reserves – the world’s second largest reserve of proven crude oil reserves after Saudi Arabia.
Close to $200 billion have been invested in the development of infrastructure and technology for the oil sands projects over the last decade alone. Rightly, the main reason Canada’s government has had a surplus in this time span is because of Alberta’s oil exports to the United States. By 2020, Harper’s government stands to receive some $51 billion in tax revenues from the oil sands operations, while Alberta alone will collect $44 billion. No wonder nobody has ever bothered to do a thorough examination and assessment of the environmental, social and economic impact of such a massive investment.
With gas prices’ volatility and a threat of peak oil in the 21st century, more and more experts are warning the leaders of our nation of the imperative need for a slowdown in the energy sector of Alberta because they will, if not, be scavenging the last drops sooner than they had expected – if it is that they even flattered the thought of a world without oil. And it is not that critics are against the exploitation of oil per sé, but rather against the way the government and the companies are conducting the very destructive business – that is, with little or no regard to the extreme environmental pollution it engenders.
William Marsden, author of the book Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care), is urging Harper and the oil czars to halt all further oil sands development in Alberta before really figuring out how to deal with the ecological and economic catastrophe it has brought.
“It is time to puncture the tire of this ridiculous fantasy. Because really, the tar sands are not an indication of plenty at all. They are just another sign that the world is running out of oil, and it’s running out of oil very quickly,” Marsden declared in a conference at Concordia University last March.

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