Ethanol or Tar Sands?

Ethanol or Tar Sands?

Those who are pushing the inclusion of indirect land use change (ILUC) in government regulations have thus far proposed ILUC as the only indirect effect and that it only apply to biofuels. A letter from more than 100 scientists pointed out this would create unequal boundaries for transportation fuels and unfairly disadvantage biofuels.

But are there indirect effects from producing gasoline? In a March 16 hearing, staff for the California Air Resources Board said they looked but couldn’t find any. Maybe they should subscribe to National Geographic Magazine. In the cover story of their March issue, they take a look at the oil produced from the Canadian Oil Sands. This paragraph gives you a good synopsis:

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles.

Only 150 square miles of the oil sands have been mined thus far but the government has leased 1,356 square miles that are minable. According to the article, the U.S. imports more oil from Canadian Oil Sands than any other country. Imports from Canada are about 19 percent of our total oil imports. That number is expected to grow and according to a new paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters, it will contribute to significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions for gasoline.

Why is this important? Well, if you read the latest EIA Outlook, you will see that the U.S. will continue to require increasing amounts of liquid transportation fuels. The report also said that growth in U.S. crude production is “limited after 2010, however, because newer discoveries are smaller, and capital expenditures rise as development moves into deeper waters.” So the two most likely source to meet the increased need are biofuels, which are constantly improving their GHG profile, and oil sands, which are moving in the other direction. Which one do we want?