Straight Outta Edmonton: Review: World’s Greenest Oil – Turning the Oil Sands from Black to Green

For Peter Silverstone, cleaning up the oilsands has nothing to do with mitigating the effects of climate change. Rather, it has to do with mitigating the effects climate change has on oilsands.

In the World’s Greenest Oil: Turning the Oil Sands from Black to Green, Silverstone argues that whether or not you believe in human induced climate change, the world is moving in that direction and subsequent market shifts will significantly influence the attractiveness of the oilsands as an energy source.

Silverstone argues this by outlining various issues related to development and assessing their likely impact on the oilsands’ attractiveness. For example, many claim the shift away from open-pit mining to in-situ SAGD production will improve the industry’s international image, as pictures showing development transforming lush ecosystems into barren wastelands will be replaced by those revealing minimal environment impact.

Open-Pit Mining
In-Situ SAGD Production

However, current in-situ methods (SAGD) will actually make Alberta oil “dirtier,” as the process has a larger carbon impact than open-pit mining (though he notes that VAPEX, COGD, THAI, and other extractions methods may lead to significantly less emissions)

Further, Silverstone investigates the claim made by many Albertan politicians that if restrictive environmental legislation is passed in the United States, we could turn to markets in Asia who desperately need our oil. In reality, the transportation infrastructure required for Alberta to export a significant quantity of oil to Asia is decades away from completion and is facing significant opposition by British Columbians.

Even if built, the province wouldn’t come close to exporting the amount slated to be produced within the decade. There is also uncertainty as to whether countries like China and India would want to make major investments in the oilsands, as they are aggressively pursuing alternative energy sources domestically (China is the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy).

The solution, according to Silverstone, is to make Alberta an attractive energy provider by “greening” the oilsands. Specifically, he proposes to change Alberta’s current royalty framework to include economic incentives for industry to decrease its CO2 emissions. This will motivate companies to pursue extraction methods that are less energy intensive and invest in developing renewable energy sources, which can be used to power the extraction, upgrading, and refining of oilsands.

The World’s Greenest Oil is clearly written for an audience that is not familiar with the Alberta Oilsands and is an effective introduction to the issue. For each point he raises, Silverstone tries to provide the range of perspectives held, as well as an exhaustive list of sources, so readers can get a sense of the various positions and where to look for further information. In doing so, he focuses on simplicity and breadth, rather than detail, summarizing the issue and his argument in under 100 pages. Consequently, for people who already have a decent understanding of the Alberta Oilsands, it might be better to skip to the final chapter, where Silverstone introduces his policy proposal, rather than read the entire book.

However, a major limitation is the book’s narrow focus. At the outset, Silverstone clearly states he’s only interested oilsands development policy from a CO2 emissions standpoint, which he believes is the industry’s biggest threat. This may be true, but by ignoring oilsands industrial pollution, tailings ponds, and other factors, readers fail to recognize how these issues are shaping current debates.

For some reason Silverstone, and most other commentators, think they can omit these importance aspects from their discussions and still provide a comprehensive understanding of the issue. In reality, all these social and environmental issues are linked, significantly impacting how the world views the Alberta Oilsands and our subsequent development policy.

Overall though, the World’s Greenest Oil summarizes contemporary debates well and convincingly shows that Alberta needs to take a more proactive stance to ensure environmental issues that have arisen from oilsands development are adequately dealt with. Not only will this have social benefits, but it will also increase the attractiveness of the oilsands as an energy source — something that must be considered as international opposition to the Alberta Oilsands continues to grow.

World’s Greenest Oil: Turning the Oil Sands from Black to Green is available at Audrey’s Bookstore in Edmonton or online.

Update: Peter Silverstone discussing his book with the Edmonton Journal.

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Pop The Stack: Sometimes War is not a Metaphor

Public discourse these days can sometimes get pretty raw. Opposing sides accuse each other of being monsters, of wanting to destroy society, of declaring “war” on the poor, on hard-working Canadians, on the environment, on taxpayers, on bicycle riders … on polar bears.  Meanwhile everyone is “fighting” for something; for democracy, for equal rights, for lower taxes, […]

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