Oil Companies as Environmental Stewards

I got this message a few days ago from the Friends of the Lubicon.  It’s a very eye-opening glimpse into the political games of tar sands oil.

March 1, 2008
Oil companies holding tar sands leases to over 70,000 square kilometers of  land are being labeled “environmental stewards” because they have asked the  Alberta government to impose a “partial moratorium” on oil sands leases on three  parcels of undisturbed boreal forest compromising 11,400 square kilometers.  These environmentally conscious oil companies acknowledge that leasing this  additional land does not “guarantee that commercial bitumen production will occur in  that specific location” but they say they are concerned that leasing the land  “does open the door to that possibility and the accompanying ecological  disturbance”.

These environmentally conscious oil companies would like to prevent  such “ecological disturbance” until 2011 allowing them to protect their  interests from new competition for three years while they struggle with a serious  labor shortage. Presumably “ecological disturbance” after 2011 will not pose  nearly as serious a threat to the things they are concerned about. Predictably “no  project currently underway or in the known (100 billion dollar) lineup of  industry proposals would be (affected)” by this “partial moratorium”.

In a related development industry analysts warn that “the oilsands  industry faces a natural gas shortage by 2030 without new energy sources to offset  gas use in oilsands expansions”. They say “continued oilsands development  would consume virtually all of Canada’s natural gas supply…by 2030”. They point  out that current demand of 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day  will increase to 6.8 billion cubic feet per day over the next two decades —  largely due to the huge amount of natural gas required to exploit the tar sands oil  — while Alberta’s natural gas production is expected to decline from 13  billion cubic feet a day in 2007 to 6.7 billion cubic feet in 2028.
Under these circumstances, industry analysts say, “oilsands projects  would either be forced to shut down or switch to alternative fuels to generate  the heat needed to produce steam (required to liquefy the bitumen sufficiently  to work with it)”. “We’re in a very delicate balance”, a natural gas  supply consultant says. He says “That gets into priorities, whether it’s more  important to run our Nintendos, cellphones and laptops than have enough gas to  produce oil for valuable export markets”. (Strangely the natural gas supply  consultant doesn’t seem concerned about people having sufficient natural gas to heat  their homes in a country where winter temperatures can drop to -40 degrees but  maybe he still lives at home and his parents take care of heating the family home  so all he has to worry about personally are his Nintendo, cellphone and  laptop.)

Another industry consultant says “The industry knows that natural gas is  in short supply and they are looking for alternatives…nuclear is one of  them”. (Actually all that keeps the oil industry from publicly heralding nuclear  energy as the answer to all the world’s problems, including greenhouse warming  for which the oil industry is of course largely responsible, is known  public aversion to nuclear energy. Instead of seeking technology that doesn’t  threaten life as we know it — and being required to ensure the safety of that  technology before proceeding with it — nuclear advocates are seeking to overcome  this problem of known public aversion to nuclear energy with a major public  relations campaign to sell nuclear energy as a safe, cheap, environmentally  friendly alternative to natural gas complete with spin doctors, cynically conceived  trick language and pet environmentalists.)

Acknowledging that use of steam to melt the bitumen “is unsustainable” (for  all kinds of reasons including the huge amounts of finite natural gas and water  it requires), some companies are experimenting with other technologies.  Nuclear advocates in the oil industry, who are clearly in the majority,  typically dismiss these other technologies as experimental, unproven and  uneconomic.

One such new technology is called “fire-flood” or THAI technology.  THAI technology involves setting fire to underground strips of bitumen about  100 metres wide and then using this burning bitumen to melt other bitumen —  kind of an updated version of the earlier proposal to melt the bitumen with  underground nuclear explosions. There is no regulation of any of this stuff and nobody  has any idea about possible environmental consequences.
Lastly, in a third related development, the predecessor of the Alberta  Utilities Commission denied a family poisoned by a sour gas well status in the  hearing of an application to drill yet another sour gas well in their area. As an  earlier decision of that body said when it ruled against a community of people  opposed to the drilling a gas well under the lake that provided them with their  drinking water:

“Underlying almost all of the written and oral objections  was the view  that the residents were not prepared to accept any  risk, no matter how small, to  the well-being of Moose  Lake because of its importance as a source of  drinking water and  recreational activities. While the Board acknowledges this   sincerely held position, it must weigh the benefits of oil and  gas development in  the public interest of all Albertans with  the potential impacts to the  residents and environment in the area”.

Later asked what benefits the decision was talking about, the then head of  that provincial regulatory authority said all Albertans benefit from the  royalties paid to the provincial government by the oil company on gas produced by  that well, or, in other words, oil company profits, and the proportionately  small royalties the company pays to the province on the natural gas, are  more important to provincial regulators than the health and well-being of  a pre-existing human community, the human rights of its members and the environment.

It will be interesting to see if the AUC grants the Lubicon status to be  heard in the TransCanada application to build a pipeline across unceded Lubicon  land over Lubicon objections.

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