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October 19, 2020 | TMX Pipeline Will Serve Cleaner Canadian Oil To Eco-Cconscious California

Stewart Muir is founder and executive director of the Resource Works Society, a Vancouver-based group open to participation by British Columbians from all walks of life who are concerned about their future economic opportunities. He is an author, journalist and historian with experience on three continents including a financial editor of The Vancouver Sun responsible for mining and markets coverage. Since Resource Works was established in 2014, the group has gained international recognition for its practical approach to the public challenges of responsible natural resource development and use.

Climate statistics from California show that the long-awaited new pipeline will usher in an era of cleaner choices for the populous state.


An oil tanker bound for Asia leaves Canada’s west coast, tethered to a tug for added safety. Photo: Resource Works News.

What the statistics tell us

Every day, a flotilla of tankers from Alaska carries crude oil to California refineries without attracting much attention. Mention the Canadian oil sands carrying one ship a day from the west coast to a foreign port, however, and watch heads explode.

Yet the fact is that the Alaskan product generates 170% more carbon dioxide emissions than its Canadian counterpart.

While it’s a familiar refrain to hear – even from green activists – that it is better to buy oil from Alaska or the misogynists of Saudi Arabia because it is said to be lower in carbon, in fact the statistics for California show something very different.

By the time Middle East dictator oil gets into the fuel tank of a truck carrying organic veggies to Malibu’s lifestyle gurus, it is virtually identical in its climate profile to Canadian blends.

Canadian oil sands crude is also cleaner than its counterparts from Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Texas, Russia, Kuwait and North Dakota.

Surprised? These statements are all based on authoritative figures from the California Air Resources Board. (See chart below.)

Thanks to a decade-long campaign to lower the esteem in which Canadian oil is held, most people if asked would probably name the oil sands as being much higher in emissions than it actually is. The distinction of being the most emissions intensive belongs to Veneuzuelan oil at 245% the emissions of Canadian oil. (Due to conditions in Venezuela, at the moment the country is not exporting any oil.)

Canada’s quiet innovation story

The discrepancy is due to two factors. First, as Canada prepared in recent years to become an entrant to the global oil trade, it has been busy innovating, to the point where major blends are equal to what the U.S. produces – even though you will never hear this from American trade protectionists. Canada’s oil sands are unique because they are subject to continuous reservoir improvement in a way that conventional oil reservoirs are not. It’s like the difference between hunting and farming, and in this comparison the Canadians are down on the farm quietly tweaking their processes.

Californians, alarmed by visible signs of climate change like wildfires, have been working hard to lower the emissions intensity of transportation fuels. They’re leading with smart measures like a market-based incentive to encourage direct air capture (DAC) of emissions. To cut GHGs, they’ll even go so far as to import tanker loads from Singapore of diesel made from fish oil, blending it in regular diesel so the result can be termed green.

Los Angelenos don’t need to clean out the world’s oceans to keep their economy moving. In just over two years, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) will open, ushering in a new era of climate-fit oil from the west coast of Canada. It’s true that the project is often talked about in terms of how it will help to diversify fuel choices on the far side of the Pacific, in countries like Korea and India, while enabling Canada to (finally) start getting full market value for its number one export commodity. That’s certainly one aspect of the new pipe that will be used to load ships in Burnaby. That oil will also be making its way to California in greater volumes than it can now.

This leads to the second reason why some people have a dour view of Canadian oil.

Quest for zero emissions

The long-term supply, viability and clean trajectory of the Alberta oil sands is a threat to those who wish that the Golden State’s 39 million residents could magically transform their energy system to zero emissions overnight.

It’s not a coincidence that the negative publicity campaigns against TMX originated with California pressure groups and some of its wealthiest private foundations. The ongoing smear certainly provided a feel-good method to bask in the warm glow of all that eco-idealism. Eventually, a considerable slice of Canadians even began to believe the anti oil sands, anti pipeline messaging too, which was the whole point.

By hobbling the oil sands, the TMX project itself, and Canada’s otherwise creditable reputation for environmental progress, these campaigners thought they had found the answer to their wish. The theory was that by adding to the costs and timelines of developing Canadian resources, publicity campaigns would lead to the shuttering of the oil sands. While considerable damage was certainly inflicted, it turns out that Canadians are considerably more resilient than must have been suspected.

Here’s the true challenge

Reality has proved to be not so simple. In 2020, we have the facts about climate change and it’s obvious that reducing emissions is a global priority. It’s also apparent that humanity is not only dependent on reliable energy today, it has to be admitted that the very existence of modern civilization is the direct result of Homo sapiens figuring out petroleum. The greatest challenge of our time is not climate change, but rather disentangling human progress from the thing – hydrocarbon energy – that created today’s unprecedented human health and prosperity, and do this without causing revolutions. Amid much uncertainty, what’s very clear is that this won’t happen overnight.

Heavy oil from Canada produces more gasoline than lighter oil, so it stands to reason that it would produce more emissions. Many billions have been invested in the United States to take long-term advantage of oil sands crude. Despite a regular drip feed of “the end is nigh” propaganda, for those who prefer to base their views on facts it’s obvious that humanity will continue to use oil for a long time to come. In the U.S. Pacific region, the Energy Information Administration predicts that more motor gasoline will be used in 2050 than 2019. With both California and Alaskan sources running dry it must come from somewhere else. Sourcing it from a close ally that has some of the most stringent environmental and climate rules in the world, as well as a system of carbon pricing, makes a lot of sense.

The true challenge for this generation is not to “get off fossil fuels” but rather to ensure that we are doing everything possible to mitigate and neutralize the negative impacts of their use, while also building a diversified energy system that is as efficient and clean as we can make it.

Over time, carbon capture technology and small nuclear power reactors will allow the oil sands to be further decarbonized. Net zero is now only three decades away – a nightmare scenario for the pressure groups that feel they have to create a whole fictional narrative about Canadian oil. Today, the opposition to TMX in Canada and B.C. has fallen off, even turned into support, as most residents wake up to the realities of serving complex energy needs while also pursuing innovation relentlessly.


Source: California Air Resources Board; Quartz.

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October 19th, 2020

Posted In: Resource Works

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