Ouyang: Oil sands development cuts down on coal use and costs


Oil sands development has reshaped the outlook of fossil fuels. Classified as a type of unconventional oil, oil sands are a naturally occurring mixture of minerals, water and bitumen – viscous oil that requires intensive treatment and refining. Imagine oil sands as thick molasses — nearly solid, but mixed with harsh chemicals and sand. The largest, most efficiently utilized deposits of oil sands occur in Alberta, Canada. Though oil sands extraction is more greenhouse gas intensive, this reason alone should not be a reason to shun the abundant resource.

A strict environmentalist would see oil sands extraction, from surface mining to the use of water to separate out the bitumen, as a step in the wrong direction. That is to say, any step not in the direction of a renewable, greenhouse gas free resource is a step that shouldn’t be taken. Such a view isn’t representative of every sustainability ally, particularly the realistic ones, but often leading “nonprofit” opinions, including “top rated” charities such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), will take such an extreme perspective.

True, oil sands production hurts the local environment and the global climate change outlook. But to do something about it, individuals, groups and even nations cannot take a single issue voter approach. It’s much too narrow-minded. They cannot take an “all oil sands production must be stopped … all investment dollars should be spent on solar panels” mentality.
Here’s an example: Obama once claimed that he will only move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline — a pipeline that transports oil sands production to Gulf Coast refineries ­— if it does not increase net greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an odd criterion: the very existence of humans, breathing in oxygen and out carbon dioxide, increases net greenhouse gas emissions. Why does a single pipeline get so much attention, especially when thousands of miles of oil pipelines (including the first two phases of the original Keystone pipeline) crisscross America? The answer you find may vary, but the bottom line is that Obama has to cater to some of his strongest supporters, and they happen to have single-issue voter mentalities when it comes to the energy future.

Here’s another: The Sierra Club recently celebrated the shutting down of a coal plant, the 150th shutdown. For each coal plant that it targets and eventually retires, the Sierra Club celebrates. But upon closer examination, the rapid rise in production of natural gas because of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has been the proximate cause of coal’s dismal outlook (See: Natural Gas Switching). It’s fair to say that natural gas, significantly cleaner burning than coal, is far more responsible for the decrease in U.S. coal consumption than the Sierra Club. Yet, the Sierra Club takes a strong stance against any hydraulic fracturing. According to the Sierra Club, hydraulic fracturing is a “violent process that contaminates drinking water, pollutes the air, and causes earthquakes.” In fact, the Sierra Club boldly claims: “If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.”

That’s oddly hypocritical. As they celebrate coal plant retirements, they attack the natural gas revolution — the cause of the enormous decreases in U.S. coal consumption. I’m not going to go into a defense of hydraulic fracturing, but the inability to recognize the positive climate impact that natural gas is having (by reducing coal consumption) while celebrating coal plants shutting down is baffling.

In response, the energy industry must repeatedly defend itself from these “single-issue” attacks, themselves also becoming narrow-minded and single-issue focused. Where are the moderates on these issues? This lack of common ground is hindering the rise of a coalition that can really evaluate the benefits and costs of fossil fuels and pragmatically move toward a cleaner energy future.

I hope to be one of those moderates. Oil sands are a critical part of the global resource basket and, though high in carbon and other dangerous compounds, are demanded by a market of consumers: us. For now, oil sands are here to stay, and making sure they remain valued while exploring other alternatives without taking extreme points of view is a must.

Chris Ouyang is a Petroleum Engineering and Economics double major from Overland Park. Read more from .

  • Updated Oct. 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm