As a coastal British Columbian I can't help but support Quebec's Coule Pas movement to resist the
What's wrong with the
For starters, the world needs bitumen like a massive head wound. A report published in Nature Climate Change last month presented a fresh assessment of our atmosphere's CO2 carrying capacity. This is a measure of how much more greenhouse gas we can pour into the atmosphere and still have a reasonable chance of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
The old number was about 2,400 billion tons of GHG. It sounds like a lot. It's not. From that it was a simple matter of figuring out how much greenhouse gas would be emitted if we burned all the proven reserves now on the books of the energy giants. That brought us to the conclusion that, if we were to have a reasonable chance of not triggering runaway global warming, we would have to leave no less than 80% of those proven reserves untouched, unburned, in the ground.
All that changed last week when new research showed that the remaining carbon budget wasn't 2,400 billion tons of GHG as we had assumed but barely more than half of that, 1,240 billion tons. What's the practical consequence of that? Well, instead of having to abandon 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves, we'll actually have to forego the extraction of 90% of those reserves. If we're to have what is an increasingly slim chance of averting catastrophic, runaway global warming, we can use, at most, 10% of those reserves.
Now here's the thing. Not all fossil fuels are created equal. Coal comes in various grades. So too does natural gas and so too does petroleum. There's really dirty coal and somewhat less dirty coal. Ditto for gas and for oil.
With 90% of those fuels now having to be left untouched, we - mankind - are literally awash in fossil fuels. We're up to our alligators in the stuff. That means we have options, the sort that come with surfeit instead of shortage. That means opting for the cleanest, lowest-carbon fossil energy options. And, when it comes to oil, bitumen is the highest-cost, highest-carbon ersatz oil of them all.
It's no one's fault that places like Saudi Arabia have really sweet, low-carbon oil that's almost effortlessly pumped out of the ground and is almost clean enough to go straight into your car's engine. They lucked out. It's no one's fault that Athabasca's petroleum option is at the other end, the wrong end of the carbon-intensity scale. You don't turn on a tap to get that out of the ground. You have to dig it or boil it out along with all the contaminants embedded in it. Then you have to process it and then you have to dilute it and construct special pipelines to move it. It's an environmental mess, a point that the Coule Pas folks understand.
Our political caste doesn't like to acknowledge it but there's already a lot of talk going around about "stranded assets." The term refers to those varieties of fossil fuel energy that are going to have to be abandoned. Coal is at the top of that list. Right behind it stands bitumen.
Cost is just part of bitumen's problems. Demand is another. Bloomberg Business reports we're on the cusp of a transportation revolution, one in which electric cars will dominate the market.
This may sound radical but Bloomberg is late coming to the party. In August, 2014, the world's largest private bank, UBS, advised its institutional investors (and they're real heavyweights) to prepare for a massive switch by consumers to home solar and electric cars. The bank's analysis found that the cost of a 20-year solar power system and an electric car could be recouped in just 6-years. Bill Gates has proclaimed a clean energy revolution will be in place within 15-years.
Meanwhile the Saudis intend to keep flooding the market with clean (did I mention low-carbon?) oil to drive the dabblers (us) out of the energy markets.
So, add it all up. 1. The Saudis are undercutting the market price of oil. Cheap oil, it seems is here to stay. That guts the economic viability of high-cost energy products such as bitumen. It's a loser, a lousy bet. 2. All indications are that we're just a matter of years away for an energy revolution, a wholesale move away from fossil fuels, even the cleaner, cheaper stuff. 3. The scientific research makes plain that high-carbon fossil fuels must be abandoned. 4. Add to that the failure the bitumen traffickers consistently experience with gaining public licence for their problematical pipelines. 1, 2, 3 and 4. That's a basketful of downsides and no upsides - nada. So, why are we hitching our wagon to a dead horse? Is it because the ailing beast hasn't quite fallen over yet?