Blame Canada Part 2: Canada's Plan to Get Rich by Trashing the Climate

Thu, 2013-03-14 08:30Stephen Leahy
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Blame Canada Part 2: Canada's Plan to Get Rich by Trashing the Climate

Blame Canada is a four part series revealing how Canada has become a wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah. For Part 1, click here.

Like every other country in the world, Canada has promised to help keep global warming to less than 2 degrees C. However Canada's political and corporate leadership are committed to turning the country into a fossil-fuelled “energy superpower.” With a drug lord's just-providing-a-service hypocrisy Canada has openly declared it's future is tied to the profits from dumping hundreds of millions of tonnes of climate-heating carbon into the atmosphere every year.

And the world's new energy superpower plans to grow those annual emissions to 1.5 billion tonnes by 2020 giving one of the least populated countries a gigantic carbon bootprint.

Most of this climate-wrecking carbon energy will come from Canada's tar sands located just underneath the pristine boreal forest and wetlands of northern Alberta. The oil industry likes to call them “oil sands,” although there is no liquid oil only a tarry bitumen mixed deep in the sandy soil.

With an estimated 170 billion barrels, the tar sands are the third largest crude oil reserves. Extraordinary efforts involving colossal amounts of water, heat, chemicals and machinery are needed to get the bitumen out of the ground and into pipelines. This the world's largest industrial project with more than $300 billion invested since 2001 by the oil industry.

Nowhere has fossil energy expansion or investment been faster or larger. Environmental activists call it “Canada's Mordor.”

While the tar sands may be located in Canada, more than two-thirds of all oil production is owned by foreign entities. China alone has put $36 billion into tar sands development. Now another $15.1 billion can be added with the Chinese state-owned firm CNOOC Ltd takeover of Calgary, Alberta oil and gas producer Nexen Inc in February.

Even “Canadian” oil companies like Suncor are predominately owned by non-Canadians, which means that a majority of the industry's profits are sent out of the country, according to a recent analysis of stockholdings by a Canadian conservation group.

In 1999 the tar sands produced 300,000 barrels of heavy crude oil a day. Now it’s up to 1.6 million barrels a day, and expected to increase to 2.4 million by 2017 and 4 to 5 million a day by 2020. And there's much more to come. An incredible $2.077 trillion is expected to be invested expanding and maintaining the tar sands over the next 25 years, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

Virtually all of the current tar sands crude flows south to the US via existing pipelines. Increasing production requires new pipelines such as the controversial Keystone XL and Northern Gateway.

Keystone XL is TransCanada Pipelines $7 billion project is designed to carry 800,000 barrels of tarry, unrefined oil every day 2,400 kilometres south through the US heartland to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. Most of the refined oil is expected to go to non-US markets. Since it crosses national borders only President Obama can approve it by declaring that the pipeline serves US “national interest.”

Obama's decision is expected this summer.

There are other pipelines proposals to move bitumen out of Alberta. The $5.4 billion TransMountain to bring up to 900,000 barrels to Burnaby, British Columbia. There are two proposals to go east all the way to Montreal and New England. One of these, Enbridge's “Line 9” proposal involves reversing the flow of a 37-year old pipeline. Public hearings are underway and it may be approved as soon as 2014. 

These pipelines are needed in order for tar sands to reach its expansion goals of 4 to 5 million barrels a day by 2020.

Fracking Up Canada's Wilderness

Although the tar sands gets most of the media attention, Alberta is also one the world's largest suppliers of natural gas from conventional and unconventional gas reserves. In 2000 there were less than 100 gas wells that tapped “unconventional” natural gas. Today Alberta Environment, a provincial agency, counts 176,000 multistage hydraulic fracturing sites. US EPA estimates 35,000 wells are fracked in the US each year.

For two decades Alberta ranchers and farmers have been dealing with water and air contamination from oil and gas drilling. “What used to be a pleasant farming landscape just five years ago has morphed into a semi-industrial area. There are now more than twelve oil and gas sites within a four mile radius of the farm,” writes Paul Slomp about his family's farm.

Farmers and other landowners will no longer be able to refuse oil and gas activity on their land under Alberta's Bill 2, the “Responsible Energy Development Act.” Under this law landowners will no longer have their concerns heard at public hearings nor can they appeal to an independent review panel. Bill 2 and other laws are forcing Alberta's agriculture communities to shift from food production to resource extraction says Slomp.

British Columbia The New LNG Empire

Next door to Alberta is the province of British Columbia (BC), world famous for its pristine and rugged wilderness. BC's northeast is where some of the biggest shale gas operations in North America are getting started. Shale rock formations there contain hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that can only be tapped by fracking.

BC's Horn River basin may hold 165 trillion cubic feet of gas while another region called Montney is estimated to have 49 trillion cubic feet, according to an April 2011 report by the US Energy Information Administration.

“Northeastern British Columbia is a key habitat for grizzly bears, caribou and others. Fracking operations are moving into untouched areas, building roads, drill pads and wastewater ponds,” says Tria Donaldson of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, an environmental NGO based in Vancouver.

About 90 percent of the gas currently produced in British Columbia is exported to US or sent to Alberta, where it is used to boil the tarry bitumen out of the millions of tons tar sands. A massive expansion of shale gas operations is underway due to the recent approvals to build a liquefied natural gas plants (LNG) on BC's coast, at Kitimat. Korea Gas, Shell, Mitsubishi Corp and Petro-China are involved in a $12 billion project to liquefy 1.2 billion cubic feet per day and load it on LNG tankers for lucrative Asian markets.

At least nine other multi-billion dollar LNG export terminals have been proposed. The BC government is banking on having five export terminals operational by 2020 and collect a yearly royalty and tax bonanza estimated at $6 to $7 billion, or about 15% of the government's current budget.

As with Alberta's tar sands, the scale of BC's proposed gas development is staggering. Roads, well pads, disposal pits, pipelines, worker's housing would affect and fragment 7,500 sq km of land – an area nearly three times the size of Metro Vancouver.

The massive increase in fracking will put new burdens on the region’s fresh water resources. “Fracking is using huge amounts of fresh water in a region that suffers water shortages,” Donaldson says.

Millions of liters of water are needed for each well. The gas industry has obtained rights to take 275 million liters every day from local rivers, lakes and streams. In 2011 sixteen companies were fined in for failing to account for how much water they were taking. According to media reports, the fines were less than $1,000.

Water holding facilities in BC. Images from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, Fracking Up BC.

Green ” Vancouver North America's biggest exporter of coal

Canada is also tapping into its coal deposits, the fifth largest in the world. Close to 30 million tons of coal exported each year mostly from from BC and Alberta.

BC is also Canada's main coal export hub, with three coal export terminals including Westshore, the busiest coal export terminal in North America. However the Port of Vancouver plans to double its coal exports and build another coal terminal on the Fraser river, turning the “green city” of Vancouver into North America's biggest exporter of coal.

Despite pledges to act on global warming, Canada intends to add billions of tonnes of CO2 to the overheating atmosphere. Four million barrels per day of tar sands oil by 2020 translates into one billion tons of CO2 over a year from tar sands extraction and burning the resulting fuels. Add in Canada's natural gas production – estimated at half billion tons of CO2 annually by 2020 for production and burning. Top it off with 80 to 100 million tonnes of CO2 from coal and 'normal' domestic emissions of half a billion tonnes and viola: Canada the 2.0 billion-tonne CO2 monster.

Keeping global temperatures below 2C requires a global CO2 diet that sheds 6 to 10 billion tons below 2011 levels by 2020 according to the latest science. And the diet must continue to push emissions lower every year thereafter.

What's Canada's excuse going to be to the world and future generations?

Lead blog image credit: ERCB. Tar Sands photo: Kris Krug via flickr.

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