May 21, 2010

Dirty oil is getting dirtier

Taking off on a flight from North Carolina this week, I couldn't help but notice the landscape -- all the rolling hills of trees dotted by sunlight as far as the eye could see.

This picturesque landscape contrasts heavily with the reality that a few thousand miles northwest of there, a virgin forest the size of North Carolina is under assault.

You see, under a 54,000 square mile forest in Alberta is oil sand ("tar sand"). Right now, 1,700 square miles of this forest are planned to be clear cut, followed by scraping away the surface soil to get at the oil sand, which is then treated with water to produce oil from Alberta's oil sands. A 1,700 square mile wasteland -- "moonscape" -- with dozens of square miles of tailing ponds so toxic and polluted that companies try to scare birds away with with scarecrows and cannons.

Interestingly, the efforts and reality of getting at this oil was highlighted this week in this New York Times article, and in the recent edition of Ethanol Today, in the article Oil: Dirty and getting dirtier.

Combined, these two articles highlight our growing dependence on dirtier sources of energy.

Already several hundred acres of forest have been clear cut and are being mined, as shown in these photos, including the image above from National Geographic. By next month, a refinery in Chicago will be getting 35,000 barrels of oil a day from this area via a pipeline.

Another 2,000-mile underground pipeline has already been proposed and would cut through Nebraska on its way to refineries in the South. It would allow Canada to ship another 1.1 million barrels of oil a day. (Hearings are being held across the state, including last week in York.)

The Times article discusses the pros and cons of getting oil from a friendly neighbor compared to a dictator, even if it is potentially an ecological disaster that abundantly spews carbon (and a multitude of greenhouse gases) and other pollutants.

Ethanol Today compares and contrasts the real cost of this oil - and notes that many agencies are underestimating the environmental impact of getting this and other oil to market. Specifically, it looks at the California Air Resources Board numbers in its low carbon fuel standards.

Certainly the need for oil remains for now - but the way we'll get that oil will only get dirtier and dirtier. Contrast that to advances made in developing biofuels, which get cleaner and cleaner.

It makes no sense to put up road blocks and hinder the development of cleaner, renewable fuels from all sources, including corn ethanol. All this will do is increase the rate at which we develop and produce dirtier oil.

It makes no sense to assign renewable fuels a "land use change" penalty in low carbon fuel rules -- and then not fully include the real greenhouse gas/carbon emissions and land use change from oil exploration and production. (Talk about ignoring reality.)

It makes no sense that the California ARB would give "a free pass, regardless of carbon intensity, to any oil originating in California, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Iraq, Brazil, Mexico and Angola," as noted in Ethanol Today. (A free pass for heavy crude oil that represents 95 percent of California’s petroleum market. Perhaps this is why major oil companies don't loudly object to the rules.)

To some, it seems, oil doesn't have an environmental footprint - but they are wrong.

National Geographic has captured some, like the one above. BP has a live video feed and other videos/images of another in the Gulf. And if you do a search for images of Nigerian oil, you'll find pictures like this one (source).

Now imagine a growing field of corn.
Clean and green.

We need to encourage the development and production of renewable fuels. And we need to increase their availability and use.

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