By Graham Hicks
My cousin’s husband looked as me as if I was just what he thought I was — an right-wing, oil-snortin’ Alberta redneck.
“Don’t tell me about how good fossil fuels are,” growled the Torontonian. “I grew up breathing (fossil-fuel) pollution that drifted over from Detroit and Chicago. I’m done with that stuff.”
I wouldn’t worry if said husband had no influence.
But he’s a top Canadian architect who designs energy-efficient office towers … and he didn’t want to even hear about the greening of fossil fuels!
This deep, stubborn, near-hatred of the cheapest, most efficient and abundant energy source in the world is irrational, but is deeply engrained in the mindset of the chattering classes.
Yet the exact opposite is true.
Thanks to the power of new technology, Alberta’s hydro-carbon energy industry is cleaning up its act at a breath-taking pace.
Energy produced from the burning of oil and natural gas is fast becoming environmentally competitive, at a much cheaper cost, with alternative energy sources like solar and wind energy. Which causes no end of alarm in those circles.
Here are the facts, dear architect, nothing but the facts.
1. Thanks to new technology, the bitumen (heavy oil) produced at Imperial Oil’s soon-to-open Kearl Lake oilsands mine will be so clean as to not need upgrading. The environmental consequences are monumental. One less processing operation will dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. Simply put, any new oilsand mining operation from now on won’t need upgraders.
2. Tailings ponds — those huge man-made lakes of crud around oilsand mining operations — will soon be of the past. Suncor’s new technology can clean that water in a few weeks, not the current 20 years. Imperial has laboratory evidence that water can be eliminated from its bitumen-sand separation process, hence no need for tailings ponds, period. Other possibilities are tumbling out of tailings-ponds research collaboration.
3. The “steam” in steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAG-D) oilsand operations may soon be gone. New research points to recyclable solvents or natural gas derivatives replacing the super-hot steam. No steam, no water use. No steam, no heating. No heating, no CO2 emissions.
4. The oilsands world awaits the final verdict on Petrobank’s revolutionary THAI Toe-to-Heel-Air-Injection underground bitumen recovery — using underground fires to melt bitumen that can then be pumped to the surface. No water, no CO2 emissions, but will it work on a grand scale?
5. The end of diluents: To make molasses-thick bitumen flow down pipelines, “diluent” (in effect light oil) has to be added, causing additional cost and additional pipelines. New technologies are finding ways to make bitumen more “flowable” without additives. The less the additives, the less the environmental impact.
6. Carbon capture: Once we get the science and economics of mega-carbon capture worked out, coal, bitumen upgrading and oil refining will cease to be climate change bogeymen. Shell’s huge Quest carbon capture project at its Scotford refining complex northeast of Edmonton will be operational by 2015. The prototype is heavily subsidized, but don’t forget Shell is putting $450 million of its own skin into this game. The huge environmental upside will come when carbon-capture and other technologies create “clean-burning” coal. Coal is Alberta and the world’s most abundant and cheapest source of energy.
7. Rail transport of bitumen: As Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal flounders, interest grows in CN’s proposal to ship bitumen by rail from ther Edmonton area to Prince Rupert/Kitimat on the west coast, and hence to Asia. The Pembina Institute think-tank did a thorough rail-versus-pipeline environmental comparison study. Rail — using existing track — came out very much on top. CN says it can add five bitumen-only trains a day on that run, carrying 400,000 barrels of bitumen … close in capacity to the Enbridge pipeline. CN already carries coal to the volume equivalent of 750,000 barrels of bitumen, to Prince Rupert every day.
Veteran Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser succinctly sums up the oil industry’s enlightened self-interest in cleaning up its hydro-carbon products.
He uses the term “social licence,” meaning the public’s trust in companies like Imperial Oil to be environmentally responsible.
The term was meaningless … until American regulators criticized Enbridge Pipeline’s handling of a major American oil spill, causing the public trust, or “social licence” in Enbridge to falter just as its Northern Gateway pipeline lobbying was hitting top gear. How unfortunate. Until that damning report, Enbridge (with its pipeline monitoring division in downtown Edmonton) had great “social licence”.
“It’s all about social licence,” says Imperial’s Rolheiser. “We have to present the public with compelling evidence that we are both maintaining and improving our environmental standards.
“Imperial’s goal is to double our oilsand and heavy oil production in Alberta by 2020. To do that, it’s vital to have the public’s trust, or the social licence.”