Friday, September 24, 2010

What is the Real Carbon Content of Oil Sands?

The question of the carbon intensity of oil sands is making the rounds again after a report from IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) stated that the excess carbon put out by Canadian oil sands is "lower than commonly perceived."  The Financial Times dug a little deeper and found that the conclusion is based on the fact that while the oil sands product indeed is a bigger carbon producer (5-15% higher than other crude), when U.S. refiners mix the oil sands product with lighter crude the ultimate product is only around 6% more carbon intensive.

I'm finding it hard to believe that CERA got paid to draw the conclusion that when you dilute something it becomes less potent.  Nevertheless, the report will be flogged by those trying to build long oil pipelines from Canada to U.S. refiners.

I'm a realist.   The technology for wholesale replacement of gasoline in cars is still years away and we need crude oil to run our country. I'd rather see that crude piped in from Canada that shipped in from Saudi Arabia (even more, I'd like to see it pumped from the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, etc.).

But the big question to me is if we are serious about reducing our carbon footprint as a nation, why are we overlooking the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to get there?  Natural gas.  It's under our feet, it's abundant and it's a far better fuel than oil and coal when considering the externalities.

I feel that our leaders are pushing a feel good long-term carbon-free future that is still far away while begrudgingly accepting the short-term status quo of oil and coal. We are missing a better solution.  The argument that natural gas is the "bridge fuel" to the future is starting to sound clich├ęd, but it remains true.

Progress is being made, albeit slowly, in incorporating natural gas as an automotive fuel in fleet operations.  That's the start. You get more vehicles consuming the fuel (the proverbial chicken) and stations to fuel the vehicles will follow (the proverbial egg).  You may argue which is the chicken and which is the egg, but as the fueling resources become more abundant so will the users.  With greater acceptance of compressed natural gas, there will be faster technological advances and more options for drivers.  Incentives from federal and state governments have accelerated the process that might otherwise move as fast as a glacier in winter.  These incentives are not charity, but rather they are accelerant to the free market to advance a beneficial technology.

Don't even get me started on why natural gas is better than coal for generating power.  It's such a no brainer that it boggles the mind why it has such a hard time catching on.  My only hope is that the facts behind natural gas will overpower the deep pocketed political resistance, because right now the lobbyists for coal and utilities are still winning.

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