Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Book Review “The Patch”

with 5 comments

Alex McLean Oilsands 11 Suncor site, Alberta, Canada 140407-0617_0

The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands

by Chris Turner

Written by Stephen Rees

September 10, 2017 at 4:27 pm

5 Responses

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  1. An excellent review, Stephen.

    A few years back the peak in cheap conventional oil drove prices high enough to make the oil sands and other expensive unconventionals economically viable. Today, though prices are much lower and have caused the cancellation of oil sands projects not far enough advanced — or contrarily, too large to not continue — the situation reflects a world glut after U.S. shale plays flooded the market and the Middle East kept the spigot open to further erode prices in an attempt to undermine their shale competitors. That obviously hasn’t quite worked out as planned.

    Meanwhile, as you mentioned, renewables continue to multiply and their prices have come down while their quality has increased. But they are not a panacea or a direct watt-for-watt replacement for fossil energy consumption. Renewables do not have the same energy density or net energy as fossil fuels and are beset with a huge intermittency challenge. Moreover, transmission infrastructure investments remain inadequate for the larger geography required by wind and solar. Geothermal shows great promise in B.C. but has not been developed, not even to an infant stage. Ditto for tidal. Hydro remains the best we’ve got; even with the problematic methane release from decaying organics at the bottom of reservoirs and leached mercury from underlying rock formations, it remains one of the best replacements we have to the dominance of fossil fuels.

    Newman and Kenworthy have done the math to prove not only that car dependency has plateaued and in some areas has declined in cities, but that cars and oil have become detached from per capita GDP in several countries. As primarily electrified public rail transport has been pushed through in many cities, wealth grew while per capita oil consumption and private vehicle kilometres declined.

    Today we now have China joining France and the UK promising to stop developing cars with internal combustion engines and liquid fuel requirements, opting instead for electric cars. In effect, demand destruction could kybosh the stated rationale for bitumen exports! However, like energy replacement (renewables for oil), vehicle type replacement remains problematic. First, demand for cars overall has flattened, and their massive infrastructure is increasingly seen as too expensive to sustain with public finances. Second, replacing ICEs with EVs will replace demand for oil with demand for electricity, which will result in a doubling or tripling of power generation capacity (several Site C’s) and increasing demand for other non-renewable resources, like lithium, cobalt and copper, all of which predominate in batteries. A lithium shortage is now predicted for the 2020s and 2030s.

    In these ever-popular scenarios conservation is overlooked. The most likely scenario to fight climate change and address resource depletion will be a significant reduction in energy per capita consumption and a decline in funding for inefficient public infrastructure, such as wasteful 10-lane bridges and freeways.

    It gets down to building walkable and transit-oriented communities, investing public funds wisely in transit and conservation, promoting human ingenuity, intellectual property patents and innovation over extractive economic models, and lowering our consumer expectations. I suggest all this will be forced on society because the original 2-degree limit posed by Paris COP 21 was exceeded years ago when you add already-released methane and nitrous oxide to CO2, which when converted to CO2 equivalent means that we have far exceeded 500 parts per million and 4-degrees warming already. Yet we are still flying, driving and generating millions of tonnes of hot air talking about the issue.

    Senior governments have proven to be too weak or ideologically blinded to do anything meaningful on this file. Our best hope lies in cities and local government.

    Alex Botta

    September 12, 2017 at 11:04 am

  2. Apparently we might be able to extract lithium from oil extraction wastewater!

    Stephen Rees

    September 12, 2017 at 11:21 am

  3. Reprocessing waste seems very wise. I can see that lithium extraction from oil waste water could be a sideline, or perhaps plastics and lithium extraction will become the primary (albeit much smaller) industries in Fort MacMurray one day as markets for exported heavy bitumen dry up. Nonetheless, one article (link below) does document an estimate of the world lithium supply after a radical increase in EVs, as well as the hidden emissions. The sudden rise in demand for lithium could push the supply issue to the forefront.

    The article also contains this interesting comment:

    Clearly, EVs alone are not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or attain sustainable transport in general. The first step is to work on switching the electric grid to cleaner renewable energy and installing more residential solar, so that driving an EV emits less CO2. However, another important step is redesigning cities and changing policies so that people aren’t induced to drive so many private vehicles. Instead of millions of private vehicles on the road, we should be aiming for walkable cities and millions of bikes and electric buses, which are far better not only for human health, but also for the environment.

    Alex Botta

    September 13, 2017 at 10:29 am

  4. See also


    ” A July 2017 study in Nature Climate Change concluded that the world only has a five per cent chance of keeping global average temperature from increasing beyond 2°C.”

    Stephen Rees

    September 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm

  5. The book opens with the story of birds being trapped in one of the tailings ponds. On September 19, 2017 Greenpeace issued this press release to show that nothing has changed

    Greenpeace responds to deaths of 123 birds at Suncor-owned tar sands mine

    19 September 2017 (EDMONTON) — In response to the news that the Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating bird deaths at the Suncor-owned Fort Hills Energy tar sands mine, Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner, Mike Hudema said:

    “The needless deaths of these 123 birds is an urgent reminder of the ongoing threat these toxic lakes of tar sands sludge pose. How many more incidents like this need to happen before government finally does something to solve the problem? The past five Albertan Premiers, dating back to Ralph Klein, have each said that they will deal with Alberta’s sprawling toxic problem and yet tailings ponds continue to grow.

    The volume of Alberta tailings ponds has now reached more than one trillion litres — about enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And, every day, about 6.5-11 million litres are estimated to leak into nearby rivers, posing a threat to nearby communities.

    This is going to keep happening until the federal government actually enforces the laws designed to protect wildlife from toxic substances and the Alberta government puts an enforceable plan in place that sees tailings ponds cleaned up from Alberta’s landscape for good.”

    Stephen Rees

    September 19, 2017 at 4:07 pm

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