Thursday, February 26, 2015

Newsweek's Obituary for the Athabasca Tar Sands

Is it time for the Barons of Bitumen to wave the white flag?  That seems to be the case according to an article from the latest NewsWeek, "Keystone and the Riddle of the Tar Sands."

...some of Alberta’s crude has made its way to market, but so much slower than it could have, or was projected to, that producers, refiners, shippers, banks and other investors in tar sands development are beginning to wonder whether they have backed a good play by investing over $160 billion to turn tar into oil.
So the economic stranding process has already begunFive global energy giants—Shell, Total, Suncor, Statoil and Occidental—have cut bait on major bitumen deposits in Alberta, in which they had already invested billions. Suncor has just slashed another billion dollars from its capital spending program and $800 million more from operating expenses. And as oil prices slide lower, commercial and investment banks are reconsidering future underwritings. An industry that recently envisioned doubling production over the next 20 years is now looking at something closer to the opposite: a halving of production or worse in far fewer than 20 years.
American media coverage of the tar sands has focused primarily on the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which, if completed, would carry 830,000 barrels of Athabasca crude, every day, to the world’s largest refining center near Houston next to a booming export hub.
Because American and Canadian politicians and oil executives have lobbied so hard for its approval, Americans tend to believe that construction of Keystone will secure the future of the tar sands. Not true. To even approach a break-even point, at least four other pipeline routes will be needed to carry bituminous crude to the world’s market: two to the Canadian west, one to the East and one to the North.
If two or three of those lines are somehow stopped, and that’s quite likely to occur, the stranding of the tar sands will escalate, Canada will cease being a petro-state, and its business leaders will begin their search for yet another staple to drive its national economy.
The article singles out Stephen Harper for scrutiny, labeling him Canada's Ted Cruz.
...Canada’s tar sands booster-in-chief is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an Alberta-based petrolero who rose to prominence in politics as chief policy officer of the Reform Party, Canada’s version of the American Tea Party. Founded in 1987, Reform merged in 2000 with the floundering Progressive Conservative Party to form a new and almost unbeatable national coalition calling itself the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance. (After adding Partyto its name, it became CCRAP and was nicknamed “see-crap.”) Harper became party leader of CCRAP, which has since won two national elections. It’s as if Ted Cruz became the Republican front-runner and won the White House twice.
...In Calgary, he became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of Pierre  Trudeau’s National Energy Plan, which seemed set upon nationalizing Canada’s last staple resource. While there is still talk of nationalizing oil and tar sands oil in Canada, and in some polls a majority of Canadians support the idea, that couldn’t possibly happen with Harper in power.
At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Harper announced that the expanded production and export of tar sands bitumen was a national priority. Canada, he predicted, was set to become an energy superpower. In Ottawa, he took immediate and aggressive steps to weaken environmental protections like the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which was hindering pipeline construction, and to fast-track tar sands production.
...If Canada’s tar sands do one day become stranded, the equivalent annual emissions of over 65 coal-fired plants and 50 million passenger vehicles will remain underground. And a lot of the credit (or blame) will go to environmental activists, aboriginal communities, litigious farmers and groups like GreenpeaceNRDC and, which have added to their anti-pipeline advocacy a campaign to pressure institutional investors to divest their “Big Fossil” holdings. Even before divestment began, nine out of 10 tar sands producers’ stocks had underperformed the market. So they are vulnerable. 
...While assets like the tar sands should be stranded, because mining and burning them will raise the temperature of an already overheated planet a degree or more, they are more likely to become stranded because they are either unable to reach market or have lost market value.
The sad irony is that before Canada selected tar sands crude to be its staple export, the country was poised to become a major global contributor to clean energy. It had signed climate treaties, promoted solar energy, developed hydroelectric power and had a prosperous renewable-energy industry under sail, for which the country possessed all the necessary natural and financial resources.
Then one powerful neoliberal free-market zealot decided to double down on high-carbon fuels and announce to the world that tar sands would become the next nation-building staple for his country.
It appears he was wrong about that, which would not be a bad outcome for the planet.


Toby said...

Mound, your link goes to a blank page. Fortunately, it is available here.

I don't know for how long.

The Mound of Sound said...

No idea what's the problem, Toby. The link works for me.

Dana said...

Worked for me too.

Tin foil hat might say that the Harperian short pants bureaucrats are working mightily at removing link from the internets.

But gawd I loved reading long last...

Anonymous said...

fracking trumps tar sands?