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Energy Insights: Energy News: Canada becoming launch-pad of a global tar sands and oil shale frenzy

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Canada becoming launch-pad of a global tar sands and oil shale frenzy


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A worldwide extreme energy boom, modelled after Canada's, is unleashing weapons of mass ecological destruction

Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada
A tar sands production facility in Alberta, Canada, where extraction methods have become a template for the exploitation of extreme energy sources across the world. (Photograph: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

If you can be sure of one thing, it’s that oil companies didn’t get the United Nations’ latest memo on climate change: the world must urgently switch to clean, renewable energy. Over the next few decades, the UN report shows that a shift from fossil fuel extraction is the only way to prevent a complete destabilization of the planet – of which raging storms, droughts, and extreme weather are a taste of things to come.

But as conventional oil reserves have dwindled, oil companies have done the opposite of embracing this shift: they’ve doubled-down on their business model by seeking out remote, more polluting fossil fuels, in harder-to-extract places.

Places like Alberta’s tar sands, a source of oil so dirty that renown ex-NASA climatologist James Hansen has described it as a “carbon bomb” whose full exploitation would spell “game over” for the climate. But if that worries scientists, it hasn’t made oil companies flinch. With little fanfare, Alberta’s extraction zone has become an inspiration and launch-pad for these companies’ ambitions – a world-wide expansion not only of the tar sands but also of oil shale, an even dirtier form of crude oil.

Can you imagine squeezing oil from rock? Oil shale is different from the shale gas that is extracted through fracking. It is geologically un-evolved oil: the remnants of organic matter buried underground for millions of years but never sunk deep enough, nor long enough, to be transformed into petroleum. Lying only dozens or hundreds of metre beneath the surface, fused into shale rock, it can be extracted: but only with the most carbon and water-intensive methods ever conceived.

Mined or heated underground, shale rock is cooked at extremely high temperatures, usually with natural gas, to separate out the solid organic matter that contains the hydrocarbons. The process releases five times more emissions than conventional oil extraction, more even than the tar sands – making oil shale the world’s dirtiest energy source. The process also wastes an enormous amount of water. In Estonia, which has been extracting oil shale longer than anyone, the industry consumes a staggering 90 percent of all the water used in the country.

Oil shale exploitation, it turns out, is hugely indebted to Alberta. It’s where one of its most common extraction methods was invented and first used for tar sands. And as prices for oil have remained high, making oil shale as well as tar sands profitable to extract, companies from around the world have flocked to Alberta to learn and hone their techniques.

Middle eastern companies want to be “close to a champion." Estonians have tested new extraction technology. Chinese investors, who have bought huge ownership stakes in Alberta tar sands projects, don’t only want to take crude home – they want to take know-how to apply to their own oil shale.

And then there’s Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, which contain most of the world’s oil shale and huge deposits of tar sands – more than a trillion recoverable barrels, according to some estimates. To put that in perspective, Canada’s oil deposits hold about 200 billion recoverable barrels, Saudi Arabia’s 260. US government officials overseeing plans for this deposit, which has no comparison in the world, describe Alberta as their “template.”

What exactly is that template? It’s not simply about dumping enough carbon into the atmosphere to fry the planet, though that is one of its least pleasant features. It’s also about hollowing out your country’s manufacturing industry, hitching your public finances to a disastrous boom-and-bust resource cycle, poisoning downstream indigenous communities, and fostering an increasingly authoritarian government that is willing to dismantle any regulation in the way of the oil barons while treating dissent like criminal behaviour.

If you thought the Canadian government might be quietly sheepish about their new status as an international extreme energy role-model, you’d be very wrong. Its politicians have eagerly promoted their extraction technologies to their allies. Canada’s Natural Resources minister recently struck up a pact to collaborate on research, development and joint ventures with Israel, which is pegged to have 250 billion barrels of recoverable crude – another mini-Alberta. “Israel’s current state of oil shale resource development has similarities to the early days of Canada’s oil sands and we are pleased to share Canada’s experiences with respect to policy and regulation,” the minister has said.

Canadian companies have not been far behind, scouring for opportunities for tar sands and oil shale investment. They’ve trotted out the same public relations lines about “responsible stewardship”, “remediation” and “small footprint” that they’ve used endlessly in Alberta. A recently-launched website,, exhaustively tracks these projects as they’ve sprung up elsewhere: in the Mongolian desert, Congo’s rain-forests, Russia’s remote basins, Jordan and Morocco, Venezuela, Madagascar and Trinidad and Tobago.

If Alberta’s reserves are a carbon bomb, this global expansion of tar sands and oil shale exploitation amounts to an escalating emissions arms race, the unlocking of a subterranean cache of weapons of mass ecological destruction. And oil companies want to move quickly to build their extraction infrastructure, so that our societies, before many of us realize it, will be forced to rely on their polluting sources of energy.

We have other choices. A transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy is possible and within reach, and in some countries already underway. We need, simultaneously, a disarmament movement geared to this age of climate crisis – a movement that deprives oil corporations of their legitimacy, strips of them of their investments, and blocks their industrial infrastructure. That, too, is underway, on campuses and in regions across the globe.

The good news is also that, so far, none of the new tar sands and oil shale projects outside of Venezuela and Estonia have been commercialized on a large-scale. And in Canada and the United States, battles against the construction of pipelines that would carry tar sands have caused delays and could leave much of Alberta’s tar sands in the ground. There's no doubt that investors and governments, not just in North America but where-ever oil shale and tar sands deposits are being eyed, will pay close attention to their outcome – they'll send a message well beyond their borders.

Canada’s tar sands have to date served only as a model for a world-wide rush for dirty energy. Shutting down the expansion could set an example for a global liberation from it.

Follow Martin on twitter: @Martin_Lukacs

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