oil spill
Crews work to clean an oil spill near Nexen's Long Lake facility by Fort McMurray. The spill was discovered by a contractor after the safety system designed to detect ruptures failed. Garrett Barry/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

This column has long argued that new technology is fast making fossil fuels, particularly our oilsands, environmentally competitive with hydro, wind and solar power - at a fraction of the price.

Pipelines were an important part of the argument – new state-of-the-art pipelines were near guaranteed not to leak, with double hulls and sophisticated systems to detect the smallest of leaks the moment they happened.

So this Nexen spill is a disaster, a complete and utter disaster.

A state-of-the-art pipeline with the latest bells and whistles developed a major crack that went undetected for two weeks, leaking 32,000 barrels of oil. Doesn’t matter what the cause, it happened.

How the hell will Alberta, even with a New Democrat government, ever persuade other provinces and states that state-of-the-art oil pipelines are fail-safe, when they obviously are not?

It’s even more of a shame when both politics and technology are moving towards serious, measurable “greening” of the oilsands.

A most promising environmental breakthrough for the oilsands was announced just weeks before the massive Nexen spill.

Pilot plant

Suncor is building a pilot plant for a new method to extract underground bitumen without water or CO2 emissions – the two (most logical) reasons environmentalists oppose the oilsands.

Re-usable propane, heated by microwaves (just like your microwave oven), loosens up and liquefies the bitumen underground. Once the propane/bitumen mix is pumped to the surface, the propane is captured and re-used.

If this technology can be scaled up to industrial production, and proves to be safer, faster, cheaper, cleaner and greener than current extraction methods, it will, over time, replace the current use of water and the burning of natural gas (hence minor CO2 discharge) to make that water into super-hot steam.

On the political front, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley had the good sense to appoint two most knowledgeable, credible and trustworthy Albertans to head up the new government’s energy royalty review and climate change strategy reviews.

Heading up the energy royalty review panel, ATB Financial CEO Dave Mowat has proven himself 100 times over to the Alberta business community and the community-at-large – transforming the once-stodgy financial institution into a competitive banking house that walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to customer service, employee satisfaction and community outreach.

On the climate change strategy side, Andrew Leach is a dynamic, highly respected University of Alberta School of Business professor who contributes profound and insightful commentary on Canadian and global energy politics and policy, in plain English no less.

Both Leach and Mowat are the last thing from left-wing ideologues, and the closest thing to good ol’common sense. They’ll do good jobs.

I’m convinced the outcome of the royalty review will be a deal between Notley’s government and the oil/gas industry. If industry gets serious about, and spends more money on, environmental improvement, the New Dems will gently whack’em them with a small, rather than large, increase in royalty rates.

‘Ton of cash’

“Environmental improvements don’t do anything for the bottom line,” says a cynic who spent his whole career as an oilsands company environmental expert.. “In fact, they cost a ton of cash. All oilsands companies put off environmental investments as long as they can, until the regulators are banging at their doors.”

The oilsands had another environmental win that was overshadowed by the Nexen disaster.

A major biological study has found forests close to the oilsands are doing exceedingly well in growth and general health. The sulphur and nitrogen in oilsand emissions, coupled with oilsand dust containing magnesium and calcium has turned out to be an effective fertilizer. Whaddya think, David Suzuki?

The cold, hard reality is oilsands expansion and transportation won’t happen without “social licence”.

That’s something Notley and her motley crew understand far better than the old Tory regime.

And that’s why this Nexen oil spill is such a disaster, effectively destroying the core argument that better technology makes for safer, cleaner oil.