Memo to Obama: CCS won’t make tar sands clean. Memo to all: They ain’t “oil sands.”

Climate Wire (subs req’d) reports this morning, “Obama says ‘technology’ can fix oil sands skirmish”:

President Obama said “clean energy mechanisms,” like carbon capture and storage, would allow the United States to continue consuming Canadian sand oil, an emission-heavy fuel that often requires strip-mining vast stretches of boreal forest in the province of Alberta.

The assertion yesterday came two days before Obama is scheduled to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, and it promises to raise questions among environmental groups, which see the oil sands as a key contributor to climate change.

Uhh, no, no, no, and no. First, the tar sands are a key contributor to climate change — it is absurd for ClimateWire to hedge (and weaken) this fact by attributing it solely to environmental groups.

Second, the “biggest global warming crime ever seen” cannot be made green with carbon capture and storage (CCS), even in the unlikely event CCS proves practical for the tar sands. If the President wants to understand everything the tar sands would have to do to be “clean,” he should start with the pastoral letter of Canadian Bishop Luc Bouchard (see Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production).

Third, Obama said, “I think that it is possible , for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal.” Did he really say “oil sands”? I can understand why greenwashing Canadian shills use the phrase rather than the traditional term “tar sands” (see “Canada tries to tar-sandbag Obama on climate“), but not why the U.S. media does, and certainly not somebody as smart as Obama.

No doubt the phrase makes it seem like, oh, I don’t know, maybe up through the sand came a bubblin crude, oil that is, black gold, Texas tea, Athabasca euphemism (see ClimateProgress commenter, Jim Eager, here).

Also, Obama has made a mistake that is all too common on the climate policy arena — confusing the benefit of CCS for generating electricity with the benefit of using CCS for making liquid fuels.

If CCS were practical and affordable and scalable and verifiable, which currently seems unlikely (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“) then, yes, coal could be turned into a source of carbon free electricity (or even carbon-negative electricity when cofired with biomass). Then we could potentially use it without destroying the climate for as long as supplies last.

But even if CCS were practical and affordable with the tar sands, you’re still left with oil at the end of the day — and burning oil is the single biggest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions, which Obama has pledged to reduce to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. That pretty much means the only fossil fuel we will be using significantly by mid century is natural gas, since it is the lowest carbon fuel and can be burned very efficiently, unlike oil.

Finally, and relatedly, the ultimate reason the tar sands cannot be made green from a climate perspective is that Canada is diverting a considerable amount of its natural gas resources to extract and process the tar sands. That natural gas could be used to shut down Canadian and US coal plants, reducing their emissions by some two thirds. Even if the tar sands had CCS, you’d still be wasting vast amounts of natural gas and creating an immense “opportunity carbon cost.”

I have never seen a true full life-cycle analysis of the tar sands that considers that opportunity carbon cost, the coal plants that weren’t shut down or avoided by the diverted/wasted natural gas. As is the case with so many lifecycle analyses, the circle drawn around the inputs and outputs isn’t big enough.

Natural gas is simply too precious a carbon-reducing fuel to waste on making another carbon-intensive fuel like the output of the tar sands.

The bottom line is that technology can’t save humanity from the environmental blight that is the tar sands. Only homo sapiens sapiens can.

Here is the full ClimateWire story:

President Obama said “clean energy mechanisms,” like carbon capture and storage, would allow the United States to continue consuming Canadian sand oil, an emission-heavy fuel that often requires strip-mining vast stretches of boreal forest in the province of Alberta.

The assertion yesterday came two days before Obama is scheduled to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, and it promises to raise questions among environmental groups, which see the oil sands as a key contributor to climate change.

Canada’s accelerated development of the oil sands, a remote reserve of tar-like bitumen that offers more fossil fuel capacity than Saudi Arabia, is a flashpoint for Obama on his first international trip as president.

The president is weighing the benefits of having a neighborly source of oil against the negative result of its carbon emissions, which can be up to three times the emissions of conventional oil. It’s a calculation that comes as Obama tries to end the United States’ reliance on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela in 10 years.

As a backdrop, environmental groups are pressuring him to apply strict emission standards to the oil sands and their connected refineries. Some believe Harper is seeking special treatment for that sector, because of the benefits it provides to Canada’s economy and U.S. energy security.

Obama won’t say ‘dirty oil’

Obama declined to call the oil sands “dirty oil” in a White House interview yesterday with Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., but acknowledged that the process “creates a big carbon footprint.”

“So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is: How do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change?” he said.

“I think, to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they’re emitted into the atmosphere, that’s going to be good for everybody,” Obama added. “Because if we don’t, then we’re going to have a ceiling at some point in terms of our ability to expand our economies and maintain the standard of living that’s so important, particularly when you’ve got countries like China and India that are obviously interested in catching up.”

He believes the worst climatic effects from the oil sands can be “solved by technology.” Canada’s emissions have risen 25 percent since 1990, more than half of which is attributed to its fossil fuel industries.

“I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal,” Obama added.

Canada is reluctant to impose a carbon cap

The comments raise hairy questions about how those technologies will be designed and paid for. The oil sands present a unique challenge for carbon capture and storage, because the emissions are spread over large areas and include sources like massive trucks and diggers the size of homes.

Experts believe that carbon capture won’t be employed by oil companies until a cap-and-trade program is imposed in Canada. That could be years away. Environmentalists are critical of Harper’s proposal to use intensity-based standards beginning next year, saying emissions from the tar sands sectors would triple by 2017. The plan would also allow emitters to pay $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide over their limit — an amount widely considered too small to prompt corporations to invest in expensive carbon capture systems.

Carroll Muffett, deputy campaign instructor for Greenpeace, said the technical and regulatory hurdles surrounding carbon capture make it “arguably mythical.”

“This is simply a distraction,” he said of the technology, which can pull money away from renewable energy programs involving wind, solar and other sources.

A report at the end of 2007 by a group of oil and gas companies found that carbon capture could be quickly implemented with existing technology — if the government put a price tag of $70 on each ton of carbon. Under those conditions, almost 15 megatons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered underground within three years, according to the industry group, which calls itself ICO2N.

CCS can’t fix the forest

Obama’s comments could push corporations toward that process, if they believe the United States could limit their consumption of tar sand oil, according to Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank and advocacy group.

“I think that’s a very welcome message,” he said, but cautioned that emissions won’t be reduced until a cap-and-trade program with hard caps is imposed.

“That’s the real test of seriousness,” Bramley added. “Right now, the government of Canada has failed that test. Now we’ll see how serious the Obama administration is.”

The bitumen in oil sands is often harvested in open-pit mines, stripping boreal forest from vast expanses in northern Alberta. Drilling also occurs. The methods require an intense amount of energy and water, which is turned to steam to separate the bitumen from the clay.

“The tar sands project in Alberta is the antithesis of what the world needs,” George Woodwell, director emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center and a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.

Experts believe Obama and Harper will keep the mood light when they meet tomorrow in Ottawa. It’s unlikely that any agreements over the oil sands or a cap-and-trade program between the two countries will be made, said Paul Frazer, a former Canadian ambassador to the Czech Republic. It will likely set the mood for later deliberations, he added.

“I think it’s important not to overload or overburden the meeting,” Frazer told reporters at the Canada Institute.

Related Posts:

18 Responses to Memo to Obama: CCS won’t make tar sands clean. Memo to all: They ain’t “oil sands.”

  1. Modesty says:

    “Clean energy mechanisms”?

    Does this phrase remind you of anything?

    Not technology, or technologies, pace the “solved by technology” claim.


    Is the idea in part to use ripoffsets?

    If Obama has been misrepresented by Climate Wire, I hope the White House will make that clear.

  2. Erik S.G. says:

    An informative post, but you write: “Natural gas is simply too precious a carbon-reducing fuel to waste on making another carbon-intensive fuel like the output of the tar sands.”

    Isn’t calling natural gas a “carbon-reducing” fuel inaccurate? Isn’t it really just a less-carbon intensive energy source (which seems a bit different to me)?

    Natural gas may burn cleaner than other fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean its extraction, production, & use “reduces” GHG emissions — it only produces *less* emissions than, say, coal.

    With natural gas, the full lifecycle of GHG emissions (and the opportunities to reduce those emissions) is too often ignored. In particular in the Western U.S., GHG emissions from upstream natural gas production are significant GHG sources, as well as significant sources of environmental degradation, period, turning whole regions into sacrifice zones.

    While I understand the core point of your article (which was about dirty tar sands), and realize that natural gas is an important energy source, it makes me nervous to see an discussion of the virtues of natural gas that doesn’t explain its role relative to efficient use of clean energy — solar, wind — and could thus be misunderstood out of context.

    [JR: We don’t need to go to zero by 2030 or even 2050. So we’ll be burning fossil fuels in this country for decades, even longer elsewhere. Natural gas is the last fossil fuel we’ll stop using.]

  3. GreenPRGuy says:

    Pretty compelling piece on this in the new National Geographic, which paints a staggering visual picture that advocacy groups have not been able to muster:

    Strikes me that this should be called strip mining for oil.

  4. Rick says:

    next generation terminology suggestion: “wealth sands” so much nicer than oil or tar sands.

    It’s all about extracting wealth and countries that are $12T. in debt will extract wealth wherever it may be found.

  5. paulm says:

    Rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric!
    Obama is, an honorable man.

    [JR: His deeds speak for themselves, I think. So I think there’s no need to put him in the category of Brutus….]

  6. paulm says:

    I wasn’t .

  7. Such adjustments to language make it far easier to disregard the future.

  8. Joe, you are right. Technology cannot redeem the tar sands’ many ills, which one can only fully appreciate in person. A visit to Fort McMurray was certainly a “formative experience” for me.

    Although I have more faith in CCS for other applications than you do (e.g. power sector), there are additional reasons why its application in the tar sands is problematic:

    The tar sands are simply the wrong direction to be moving in. And we in the U.S. should take responsibility for the destruction that its oil addiction is causing.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Definitely not something that makes me feel good. Coming from a Coal state (IL), Obama would talk alot about CCS as a Senator. As smart as Obama is, he’s still a politician and seems to be one that generally goes for the can (pragmatist), not the what could be. We should adjust our expectations accordingly. :-(

    I think the market will handle Coal with CCS, just as it is with Nuclear (for the same reason), it will be too expensive to be competitive with greener options.

    Currently the market should choke investment in the tar sands projects, with oil so low, its not economically viable to produce oil this way. However there is a growing list of people (head of French Oil company Total) who think that we’ll never see oil production levels as high as we did last year and that we’re starting down the other side of the oil production curve – once that curve hits world demand levels – we’ll see the price back up in the stratosphere….and people/politicians will be clamoring for the tar sands production. I’m not sure there’ll be much that can be done for that – I hope it could be eliminated, but I doubt it will be (think of whatever the corollary to Drill Now would be for this when Oil is back above $140 barrel).

  10. This is an excellent piece! Scientist James Hansen has just weighed in saying in a Reuters piece that “You can’t exploit tar shale and tar sands without pushing things way beyond the limit” The good news is we can eliminate our dependence on tar sands oil with measures already supported by the President. See my blog at But we need to act fast to divert the ramp up of tar sands production to cleaner energy sources.

  11. Hi, I’d just like to play devil’s advocate here. Obviously, the Canadian government is playing poker hoping that, given Obama’s commitments to wean off oil from the Middle East and Venezuela, it has enough leverage to spare oil-sands operations the brunt of new climate legislation.

    The questions are: Can the U.S. go without oil from Canada? Can the oil sands be clean up enough to meet strict emissions standards? From the Canadian perspective, I can understand the worry. The oil and gas industry in Alberta represents a huge chunk of Canada’s GDP. Simply killing it would send ripple effects across the nation, creating massive job losses at a time when we’re already in economic decline. Should the starting point be to simply stop expansion, and not proceed until technology is there to restrict emissions?

    There are no easy answers. I just don’t know what Obama, at least at this time, can really say about it.

    What I’d like to see is serious attention to geothermal energy as a way to dramatically offset natural gas use.

  12. The tar/oil sands operation also creates water problems. But these are local, and maybe the Canadians don’t mind being a toxic dumpsite for the convenience of American motorists.

  13. Americans are also thirsty for Canadian water.

  14. Modesty says:

    Seriously: “Clean energy mechanisms”? Google it in advanced search w/o “Obama”. You get 22 hits. That’s it. (30 hits for the singular form.)

    What is at stake in Obama’s use of this new term, with its heavy allusion to the clean development mechanism?

  15. kend says:

    Bailout 2008, a poem by David Jeffrey:

    Like a bloodied warrior,
    laying broken and torn.

    Like a dying soldier, hopeless and forlorn.

    But the blood, it be green,
    the color of money.

    And the soldier is an economy,
    and it is anything but funny.

    Broken are it’s people and shattered are their dreams.

    Thanks to the ultra rich and their full proof schemes.

    It is a tragedy with more pain to come.

    Finance will be Hell, and their wills will be done.

  16. llewelly says:

    Liz Barratt-Brown

    See my blog at

    Please do not put a period (.) or any other punctuation, or anything but a space immediately after a url. ‘html.’ and ‘html’ are both valid urls – so there’s no easy way for the climateprogress blog software (or any other blog software) to determine that the period is not intended to be part of the link. As a result, the blog software formats the url as a link – with the extraneous period included, resulting in a broken link. Always, always, always follow a url with a space, even at the end of sentence.
    Like this:
    Compare the link I quoted from Liz with the above link. Liz’s link does not work. This one does.

  17. one person who can really turn around things in our country it is the president. With elections round the corner and a line-up of presidential candidates.

  18. Susan says:

    A little out of date, but to my mind the most effective and devastating review of tar sands is this: