Sands of peace

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 6, 2008

Russia’s energy supplies enabled their aggression, Canada’s supply could be the placating alternative.

“When it comes to action over Georgia, Russia has the European Union over a barrel. In fact, 1.2 million barrels. That’s how much Russian crude is pumped westward every day down the Druzhba pipeline to fuel Europe’s economies.”

So began an article in the International Herald Tribune, one of many last week explaining why Europe – and the west – has little choice but to sacrifice parts of Georgia, and maybe a lot more, to Russia’s ambitions.

“Russia knows that when it comes to conducting a serious foreign and security policy, Europe is all mouth,” says Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU external relations commissioner. This impotence emboldens Russia and revives its centuries-long drive to control neighbouring states.

A new Cold War looms, many are concluding, financed by Russia’s new found energy wealth and fueled by appeasement. Is the free world doomed to decades of hostility due to Europe’s energy vulnerability?

1.2 million barrels of oil a day is a lot. Or not. Alberta’s might as an energy power is now based largely on the ongoing development of just seven oil sands projects, most of them on the ultimate scale of 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Add three or four projects from Alberta on that scale to produce another 1.2 million barrels of oil per day and Europe’s entire oil dependence on Russia can be eradicated. A democratic peace-promoting country would have come to Europe’s rescue, providing not just oil but the steel needed in Europe’s spine.

The oil would do more than loosen Europe from the grips of an untrustworthy supplier who has shown no hesitation in using its energy exports to bully its customers – the Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia have all felt Russia’s wrath. With an immense addition to the world oil markets from Alberta, oil prices will plummet along with the need for appeasement, in the process weakening despotic and militaristic regimes. High oil prices arm despots against their own people, as with Burma’s military regime; they finance terrorism abroad, as with Iran; and they make dreams of empire thinkable, as with Russia.

The world’s longest conveyer belt at the Muskeg River
Mine project in Alberta. Photo credit:
Ted Jacob, Canwest News Service

Canada’s oil sands are rightly known for the immense environmental problems that they pose. They should also be known for their role in promoting peace and security around the globe. Canada already exports some 2.5 million barrels of oil a day to U. S., more than half of it from oil sands, providing the Americans with a secure supplier that reduces its need to intervene militarily in far-flung oil-producing regions.

Energy security remains a top political issues in the U. S. One of Barack Obama’s central pledges in his acceptance speech last week was getting off Mideast oil in a decade. The U. S. imports some two million barrels of Mideast oil per day. In a decade, if the Alberta government’s plans come through, that entire two million barrels could come from increases in Alberta oil sands production alone. In another decade, Alberta hopes to expand its production by another three million barrels per day. Advancing just 1.2 million of that three million for the sake of Europe, and for the cause of peace, should become an imperative.

In the 1980s, when oil from oil sands cost about $30 a barrel, and oil prices were often in the $20 to $30 range, oil sands required economic subsidies to be viable business propositions, even ignoring their environmental harm. With oil now at $100 per barrel and production costs about $10 a barrel and expected to fall further, the profitability of oil sands is immense. No subsidies can be justified, economic or environmental.

Oil sands have a host of problems. These include known harms – they consume and pollute too much water, they despoil too much land – and they include one potential harm – greenhouse gases, which many scientists believe can cause the planet to warm dangerously. But problems have a way of getting solved, as we’ve seen with coal. Once the dirtiest of fuels, coal can now be burned cleanly, thanks to improvements in technology. Clean coal has the same emissions profile as natural gas, and it is getting cleaner still.

Oil sands are following the same route to rehabilitation. They still consumes too much water, but less than half as much as before. Although some 500 square kilometres of land has been despoiled to date, land is also beginning to be rehabilitated, as it must under the terms of the agreements that the producers signed with the government – Syncrude has reclaimed some 4,500 hectares at its site north of Fort McMurray, with impressive results. Greenhouse gas emissions are being halved.

Alberta’s oil sands represent one of the planet’s largest reservoirs of energy – some 2.5 trillion barrels of crude bitumen from which 300 billion barrels are estimated to be available, an amount that rivals the reserves of Saudi Arabia. They need to be developed properly: cleanly, to protect the environment, and quickly, to promote peace and stability.

First in a series, also featuring:
Oil sands cleanup

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.

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