Nothing is more irksome than the Keystone XL pipeline protesters calling our oil sands oil the “dirtiest oil on the planet” or Al Gore claiming there’s no such thing as ethical oil, only “dirty and dirtier oil.”

For two years, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about the oil sands, pollution and technology.

I have reached quite the opposite conclusion of Mr. Gore.

If the technological advances in the oil sands continue at the current pace, if energy producers continue to invest in oil sands’ research at current levels, if provincial and federal regulators continue to raise the bar to ensure world-leading environmental standards, oil-sands oil will be one of the world’s cleanest energy sources.

If a proposed new factory or electricity plant put out a call for the best environmentally friendly fuel source – be it wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas or oil - our oil-sands oil will soon be competitive at a fraction of the cost of any “alternative” energy source.

I say this despite the “cumulative effects” argument: That the oil sands may be cleaning up its collective act, but with a doubling or tripling of production in the next decade or so, technology just can’t keep up.

Oh yes it can.

Militant environmentalists cannot get their heads around a simple motivation: A clean oil sands is a profitable oil sands. The less water used, the less CO2 emitted, the more efficient, and hence more profitable, the operation.

The cleaner and greener the oil sands, the better the market acceptance. All of us, not just Greenpeacers, care about our environment in northern Alberta and on planet Earth.

Let me tell you about just a few of the new technologies transforming the oil sands.

To begin with, all new oil sands plants now separate the bitumen from the sand underground, before the bitumen is pumped to the surface. The “in situ” process is far cleaner than surface mines. No new surface mines are planned.

Tailings ponds: Those great, big, dirty artificial lakes surrounding existing oil sand surface mines can be seen from space. They look bloody awful.

By the end of my life they will no longer exist.

The clay particles that previously took decades long to settle out of the water can now be removed in weeks, or separated from the waste water as it emerges from the bitumen-sand separation plants. Suncor and Syncrude are now installing new technologies to that effect.

After decades of research, Syncrude is reclaiming an eight-square-kilometre tailings “lake” by adding clean water on top and letting natural bacteria eat the bad stuff at the bottom. Once complete, the “artificial” lake will be as clean and ecologically vibrant as any natural lake.

At the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – 13 oil sands companies pooling research efforts – the scientists say “dry tailings” are within reach.

Oil sand bitumen is an ultra-heavy, molasses-thick oil that needs an extra step in the refining process – upgrading.

Bitumen coming from Imperial Oil’s new Kearl Lake mine WILL NOT NEED upgrading! Its new bitumen/sand separation techniques produce a higher-quality bitumen that many refineries can handle without upgrading.

No upgrading means less CO2 emissions, less cost, less heat (energy) needed to produce energy. No wonder Suncor decided to shelve its Voyageur upgrader in Fort McMurray.

Cutting down on water use and CO2 emissions is a top priority of the oil sands, and boy, is it happening fast.

In-situ oil-sand extraction technology involves enormous amounts of super-hot steam - which means lots of water and CO2 emissions from heating that water into steam.

Next generation in-situ technologies will use recyclable organic solvents, underground burning, electrical currents, all technologies dramatically reducing water and energy use, hence less CO2.

Equally important is the acceptance — finally — by all oil sand players of independent state-of-the-art oil sands environmental monitoring run jointly by the provincial and federal environmental departments. No more there-is-a-problem there-isn’t-a-problem. And if there’s unacceptable air/water pollution, it’ll have to be fixed, pronto.

I could go on and on, but only so many words will fit on this page.

Suffice it to say the day will soon come when the oil sands, rather than being vilified, will be recognized as a near infinite source of clean, inexpensive, environmentally friendly energy.


Examples of spending by oil companies on environmental research and implementation (sourced from annual reports and press releases)

Suncor tailing ponds clean-up, $1 billion in 2011 and 2012

Syncrude, environmental capital projects and land reclaimation in 2011, $1 billion

Syncrude, expected costs of tailing pond clean-up via centrifuge technology by 2015, $3 billion.

Carbon penalty cash collected by Climate Change Emission Management Corporation from Alberta energy industry, to 2012, $312 million. Cash dispensed to environmental clean-up technologies to date, about $167 million.

Shell Quest Carbon Capture Project, rough cost $1 billion, Shell contribution about $500 millioin.

Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (partnership of major oil sands companies for environmental innovation) – looked at 440 technologies, taken 180 to next step.

Graham Hicks

Hicks on Biz

780 707 6379