Obama’s Tar Sands Technology Breakthrough Is Idiotic


Yesterday Barack Obama told Canadian television that if a technology similar to carbon capture and storage could be developed for the oil sands of Alberta, then Canada would be able to pull oil from the ground with less pollution.

That’s a bunch of bull according to Climate Progress who unleashes a tirade on the President and his ignorance:

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.