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Oilsands: not an immediate environmental concern?

A reportreleased by the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday contends that the Canadian oilsands are neither critical to U.S. energy security nor catastrophic for the climate.
That’s an interesting conclusion, given the heated rhetoric in the U.S. about ending dependence on oil from hostile nations, and the controversy here in Canada about the damaging environmental effects of the oilsands. So what gives?
On the energy security side, the amount of proven reserves in the oilsands is too small in terms of global supply to have much of an impact, argues Michael Levi, director of energy security and climate change with the CFR in New York and author of the report. The energy security benefits of robust Canadian oil sands production are real, but because oil is essentially traded on a global market, not as large as some might intuitively assume, he writes. Oil sands exploitation will not fundamentally change the global oil picture.
But perhaps the more contentious part of the report concerns the environment. Extracting bitumen from the sands is far more energy intensive and requires more water than conventional oil production. According to the CFR the average well-to-wheels emissions of a single barrel from the oilsands exceeds that of the average barrel of conventional oil consumed in the U.S. by 17%. (The Pembina Institute estimates emissions could be three times higher.)
Levi writes the current oilsands production rate of approximately 1.2 million barrels per day equates to a premium of 40 million tons of CO2 emissions a year compared to conventional oil. Thats 5% of Canadian emissions, amounting to 0.1% globally, which is a small piece of the emissions picture, according to the report.
Should production increase and the emissions released per barrel not be reduced, the share of CO2 from the oilsands will triple by 2030, making the oil sands a huge relative contributor to Canadian emissions, but still a relatively marginal one in the U.S. and global contexts.
The international context is likely what leads to the conclusion that dealing with the oilsands environmental impact is not as pressing as some believe, but Canadians should pay attention to the first part of that previous quote. Domestically, the oilsands are indeed an environmental problem. Increasing emissions at precisely the time when countries need to be reducing them is, of course, counterproductive. China’s emissions may dwarf Canada’s, but that shouldnt be an excuse for foot-dragging on the issue; Canada would only look like even more of a laggard on the world stage when it comes to the environment. And besides emissions, there is the depletion of fresh water reserves and boreal forest land, as well as massive tailings pondscreated during production to contend with.
Levi recognizes that the environmental implications of increased oilsands production still cannot be ignored, although he believes its more of a long-term issue. He advocates for a harmonized cap-and-trade system between the U.S. and Canada and the development of carbon capture and storage technology to deal with emissions, both areas the Canadian government is working on.
Ultimately, the oilsands will play an important role in the States future energy mix, Levi writes, but by far the best way to solve the emissions problem is to reduce consumption. Cleaning up the oil sands, meanwhile, is only a small part of the climate challenge, he writes. Obsession over the oil sands would be a dangerous distraction.