This time around, the New Yorker staff writer has a solid piece — not her very best work, but good — on the gigantic tar sand-mining operations of Alberta. Unhelpfully for the purposes of conveying the story to you, the magazine’s site is running only an abstract of it:
However, despite my lack of Dvorak skillz, I’m a fast typist, so here’s the excerpt I want to pull out so as to tantalize you to, uh, well, I guess to find a back copy of the November 12 issue. (Memo to The New Yorker: please make my life easier here.)
Alex Farrell is a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the impacts of unconventional oil. A few years ago, Farrell realized that all the major climate models were based on the same faulty premise: they assumed that in the future increased oil demand would be met with increased supplies of conventional crude. Together with a graduate student named Adam Brandt, Farrell decided to try to come up with projections that more accurately reflected reality. For their calculations, the two assumed that where there was a gap between demand and conventional supply it would be filled with synthetic fuels, first with tar-sands oil and later with oil from coal and shale. (According to high-end estimates, coal and oil shale could together yield some ten trillion barrels of unconventional crude.) They then calculated what the impact would be on global carbon-dioxide levels.
“All unconventional forms of oil are worse for greenhouse-gas emissions than petroleum,” Farrell told me. “And it’s pretty easy to understand why. It’s not so hard to turn liquid petroleum into liquid fuels. Turning a solid material like coal into a liquid — it sounds hard to do, and it is hard to do. And that extra effort shows up in higher energy consumption and higher water use and higher emissions.” In the case of tar-sands oil, total greenhouse-gas emissions per barrel — which is to say, the carbon dioxide produced in creating the oil and then burning it — are between fifteen and forty per cent higher than those from conventional oil. In the case of coal-to-liquids, or C.T.L., total emissions are almost two times as high as with conventional oil, and for oil shale they can be more than twice as high.
Sobering stuff to contemplate. What it makes me think of is how some black-market devotees continue to pay a fortune for powdered rhino horn (it’s used as a purported aphrodisiac) long after rhinos have come under legal protection in virtually every jurisdiction. You’d think that at some point the black-market customers would just give up on the rhino horn, but they don’t. True, the problem is many orders of magnitude bigger when we talk about energy and petroleum, but I wonder whether the psychology isn’t similar at some level. We want what we want, and we’ll go to whatever lengths to get it.
One more quote from the good Prof. Farrell, concerning efforts by some U.S. legislators to promote the C.T.L. extraction industry:
“If companies could lay off the risk of oil prices dropping below forty dollars a barrel, there would be enormous investment in this,” Farrell told me. “But, when policies are proposed to promote C.T.L., I think the question to ask is, Is this an industry we want to start now?”
Well put. Read this article if you get a chance.