Are Canada’s oil sands on shaky ground?

The tar sands may be moot in moments, people!

The tar sands may be moot in moments, people!

There he went again, raining all over Canada’s petroleum parade with the sort of gusto one expects from a former American vice president, nobel laureate and, arguably, the planet’s leading climate-change critic.

Al Gore thinks the nation to the north of him has lost its way and in an interview published in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, he pulled no punches. “The resource curse has multiple dimensions,” he said, “and [that includes] damage to some extremely beautiful landscapes, not to mention the core issue of adding to the reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer.”

To which Canada’s Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver shot back (again, in an interview with the Globe), “Well, he’s off the mark. . .[Those were] wildly inaccurate and exaggerated comments.”

This is not the first time the two gentlemen have sparred over Alberta’s oil sands, which occupy a tract of land about the size of England (though only a fraction of this is actually under development) and which can be seen from space. And it won’t be the last. As the glittering example all that’s wrong with our greedy, self-destructive, fossil-fuel-addicted society, this bitumen-producing region is, for environmentalists, simply too sexy to resist.

Still, though they continue to provoke discussion, there is some indication that their battles over the production of synthetic crude are becoming less relevant to the global energy debate, which is moving in increasingly new and intriguing directions.

British Columbia’s Liberal Leader Christy Clark, who is campaigning for a second term as the province’s premier, touched on this the other day when she told the Globe’s editorial board, “The pipelines that are of most interest to British Columbians are liquefied natural gas,” she said. “That’s something we can do and we don’t need the federal government and we don’t need Alberta.”

It’s the sort of statement that comes with the electioneering territory. But at least one decidedly sober source openly wonders whether our conventional attitudes and assumptions about petroleum products deserve a makeover.

One such assumption is that the world is running out of commercially exploitable reserves, a condition that makes the still plentiful Alberta fields crucially important. But, as Charles C. Mann notes in the Atlantic magazine’s cover story this month, “Even as companies drain off the easy oil, innovation keeps pushing down the cost of getting the rest. From this vantage, the race between declining oil and advancing technology determines the size of a reserve – not the number of hydrocarbon molecules.”

Mr. Mann says, “This perspective has a corollary: natural resources cannot be used up. If one deposit gets too expensive to drill, social scientists (most of them economists) say, people will either find cheaper deposits or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum to mine later. ‘When will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?’ asked the MIT economist Morris Adelman, perhaps the most important exponent of this view. ‘The best one-word answer: never.’ Effectively, energy supplies are infinite.”

The article’s author does not endorse this argument; he merely raises it by way of explaining that technology is transforming our notions of what is and is not exploitable   – just as it once did in Alberta. Now, shale gas from hydraulic fracturing is flooding the North American marketplace, promising to do the once unthinkable: make the United States energy self-sufficient in less than 20 years.

And, on the horizon, is another, even more promising, fossil fuel source awaiting the steady march of innovation to set it free. “In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas – methane hydrate, in the jargon – beneath the seafloor,” Mr. Mann explains. “Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined.”

It’s also much cleaner and, therefore, potentially less costly (environmentally and financially) to produce.

But if all this sounds like so much science fiction, it’s worth remembering that’s what the experts once said about shale gas and, yes, Alberta’s oil sands when technology was still in its infancy.

The future is about to give bitumen a run for its money.

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