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Oil: Dirty and Getting Dirtier
by Jonathan Eisenthal

The carbon intensity and environmental impact of oil is a moving target. Dirty and getting dirtier, say the experts.

As this article goes to press, news media report that 20,000 gallons of oil remain trapped in the beach sands of Prince Edward Sound 21 years after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground. It will be difficult to ever eradicate the oil from that sensitive ecosystem because the microbes that can break down the oil can't reach it. We are also getting news of a Chinese oil tanker whose breakup endangers the priceless Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

But these are the accidents. The outliers. It’s the everyday practices of the oil industry… offshore drilling sought in deeper and deeper waters; the use of steam and hot water to capture the remnants of old, exhausted wells across the United States; the venting of natural gas and the flaring (burning off) of that gas to relieve pressure in oil wells; and the increasing reliance on heavy crude – all these come at a high price to the environment and the climate.

Into the middle of all this steps the government of the state of California, through its Air Resources Board (CARB), which is seeking to develop its own Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), apparently more stringent than federal requirements. While CARB focuses on how much carbon ethanol generates, it disregards petroleum’s greenhouse gas impact.

The California LCFS asserts that the worldwide average carbon intensity of gasoline four years ago is what California’s oil use generates today. Further, its LCFS treats this number as if it will reflect the truth far into the future. This is simply a myth, say the experts. Likewise, CARB’s findings on ethanol’s carbon intensity appear to be carved in stone, disregarding the reality that the ethanol industry has steadily reduced its carbon footprint and will continue to do so.

The great oil sands environmental disaster

Many environmentalists regard the strip mining of heavy crude from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to be the most flagrant abuse of the environment in memory – perhaps ever.

If California blocks Midwestern ethanol and uses more oil, directly or indirectly, it will encourage the rape of Alberta’s boreal forests.

For people of the Midwestern United States, where very little oil is produced, the 1.8 million barrels of oil produced daily from the oil sand mines form a fundamental part of our transportation energy supply. Surely, however, Midwestern drivers who use E10 or higher ethanol blends can take comfort that every gallon of ethanol we use means less gasoline comes to us from the oil sands.

The Wikipedia article on Canada's oil sands reports: "The Athabasca deposit is the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River, Alberta and Cold Lake, Alberta deposits. Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 square miles) of sparsely populated boreal forest.”

This is virgin forest the size of the state of North Carolina. Current plans call for more than 1,700 square miles of forest to be surface-mined. The trees are being clear cut and much of its surface will be stripped, put through processors that capture the heavy crude and leave behind a moonscape of dust and tree stumps, as well as huge lakes of open air toxic tailing pits. It is a scene right out of Dr. Seuss' famous environmental tome, “The Lorax.” A huge swath of forest will be pulverized over the next decade or so, if the world cannot gather the will and muster the technology to shift to other sources for transportation and heating energy.

Environmental groups that wring their hands over new land brought into agricultural cultivation need to stand up and pay attention to the mammoth scale of soil and plant life disruption in these oil fields. This is the only alternative to ethanol.

Here’s what a March 2009 National Geographic article had to say about surface mining of the oil sands:

“Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died.”

While the surface mining is the most visible environmental disruption, extraction from under the surface may promise to do as much or more permanent damage. In situ mining involves drilling and use of high-pressure steam and hot water to force heavy crude to the surface.

If the Midwest says no to oil sands, then their development will be limited by the pipelines and shipping infrastructure that can be developed to take the oil to Asia or other markets. To force this shift would, at the very least, slow the rate of destruction.

According to a report from the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC), the forests of Alberta represent “The Carbon the World Forgot." The report can be read at

"[IBCC] identifies the boreal forests of North America as not only the cornerstone habitat for key mammal species, but one of the most significant carbon stores in the world, the equivalent of 26 years of global emissions from burning fossil fuels, based on 2006 emissions levels. Globally, these forests store 22 percent of all carbon on the earth’s land surface."

The peatlands and permafrost in the region store carbon that has been in place for 8,000 years, according to scientists.

To date, Alberta Province has leased 61 percent of the oil sands region, of which about 230 square miles of surface have been disturbed, according to Marc Huot, an analyst for Pembina, a Canadian environmental group. About 1,500 more square miles ripe for surface mining remain – but for how long?

“When you consider the total cumulative area, in situ operations could cover an area up to 30 times larger than the total mineable region,” Huot said. “The disturbance from these projects is primarily resulting from several cuts through the forest for roads, seismic exploration, pipelines, well pads, etc. Essentially in situ operations significantly fragment a large portion of the region. This fragmentation can have very serious impacts on wildlife that are sensitive to industrial development. In fact, in Alberta we’re already seeing a steady decline in caribou populations that is largely due to industrial development in the region.”

Huot points people to a report, “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” for more information on the land impacts from in situ oil sands:

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for the preservation of at least half of the region, not only to limit the release of greenhouse gas emissions, but as a kind of Noah’s ark for animal and plant species affected by climate change.

"The boreal forest’s status as the most intact forest left on earth also offers a unique opportunity for plants and animals forced to adapt to shifting habitats," according to the IPCC report. "Most other habitats today are highly fragmented by human activity, creating a variety of additional obstacles for species survival."

Beyond land and forest, the region’s water resources face devastation: mining operations alone are licensed to divert 593 million cubic metres of water each year, according to Huot. This equals 156.6 billion U.S. gallons. By contrast, at its height, the U.S. ethanol industry will use about 60 billion gallons of water per year. And then there is the question of the condition of the water after its use. Strict permits require ethanol wastewater to be free of harmful pollutants, and plants are fined when they violate these standards. In contrast, oil sand strip mining operations have created 50 square miles of “open to the air toxic tailings (ponds),” according to Huot.

Thermally Enhanced Oil Recovery and CARB’s underestimate of the carbon intensity of California’s oil supply

Though CARB’s energy policy doesn’t acknowledge it, petroleum is a “continuum of carbon intensities,” according to R. Brooke Coleman. A major portion of California’s oil supply comes from the part of that spectrum that is above the average for carbon intensity.

“California’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard ends up being a false comparison,” Coleman said.

Coleman is executive director of Boston-based New Fuels Alliance. In his decade as a leader in the alternative fuels policy arena, Coleman helped direct a national campaign to ban the suspected carcinogen fuel additive MTBE and helped Massachusetts pass the first excise tax exemption aimed specifically at cellulosic ethanol. He served as the Climate Program Director at Bluewater Network in San Francisco, and later founded or co-founded the New Fuels Alliance, the California Renewable Fuels Partnership, and the Northeast Biofuels Collaborative.

“TEOR – thermally enhanced oil recovery. Once a well is tapped as far as light sweet crude, they use steam to extract the stuff that’s harder to get at,” Coleman said. “Energy inputs go way up per unit of energy out. This is the first place oil companies go when they have exhausted a well. There is an enormous amount of this oil coming out of California wells right now. Because of steam ratios, TEOR-sourced oil is 15 or 16 percent more carbon intensive or dirtier than today’s average petroleum. So, when CARB goes by the California average for petroleum – 96 grams per megajoule – they are underestimating significantly. In reality, California oil averages well above that mark, with TEOR at around 110 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule. If we are going to track the carbon scores, let’s be honest about it.”

Getting to ‘apples to apples’

The 96 gram per megajoule figure isn’t even a good average for the whole U.S. oil industry anymore, Coleman said, thanks to the trend towards more energy intensive methods of oil extraction and refining. A thorough examination of all U.S. oil sources found no significant sources of oil in the U.S. below that 96 gram figure – that’s not how averages work.

“We put Venezualan heavy crude at 107 grams per megajoule. The growing use of sources like Venezuela and Canada oil sands have driven the industry average of today’s oil consumed in the U.S. to much higher levels than reported,” Coleman said. “Even if you assume the worst case, that corn ethanol is only marginally better than oil now, these fuels are headed in opposite directions. People walk around acting as if corn will be ten percent better than oil now, and ten years from now. In ten years, oil will average, maybe 120 units, while corn ethanol, which keeps getting cleaner, will go down to 70 or 60 as an industry average. California’s regulations are setting up a fiction that oil is going to stay the same and it isn’t. Some oil pathways are significantly dirtier. Canadian oil sands oil is at least 20 percent dirtier than today’s average oil extraction, and that’s before taking into account all the environment impacts that we are just beginning to get a handle on, like the methane emissions from the tailing ponds. They dump their slough, supposedly contained, and it’s supposed to sit there, but anaerobic digestion is breaking the heavy crude leftovers down into methane, which is more than 30 times worse than carbon in terms of greenhouse gas intensity. California is not adding that to the score. If you take that into account, some people say oil sands are two times worse than today’s petroleum.”

Coleman sited U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Information Agency estimates that half of all transportation energy in the next 10 to 40 years will come from sources other than conventional oil. Half of it will come from biofuels and half from “unconventional oil” sources like Canadian oil sands – that is if the U.S. follows through with current Renewable Fuel Standard requirements that bring the U.S. market to 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

“It goes without saying that if you prevent biofuels, then you will force more of those insidious fuels into the market,” Coleman said. “ Some of the communities that are concerned about dirtier fuel... are so focused on making sure that biofuels are not allowed to enter the equation, they are so obsessed with fuels like corn ethanol, that they are allowing and actually facilitating the introduction of oil that is much, much dirtier, which enters the economy through the back door. The answer is right in front of us – instead of focusing on one fuel, let’s do a comprehensive analysis of all fuels. Let’s get to an apples-to-apples comparison, based on solid science.”

In late March, the California Air Resources Board announced it would give a free pass, regardless of carbon intensity, to any oil originating in California, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Iraq, Brazil, Mexico, and Angola. Under this policy heavy crude will be given the same status as “low carbon baseline fuels.” Since these 8 regions represent 95 percent of California’s petroleum market, this is a virtual free pass for heavy crude even while CARB tries to hang corn-based ethanol out to dry, based on unproven indirect land use changes.

ILUC that spotlights ethanol only provides a cover for forest destruction caused by oil

If you look at the volume of forest loss by year in the Amazon basin, it doesn’t line up with the expansion of the U.S. biofuels industry. More than a decade ago (well before U.S. ethanol ramped up), researchers drew a much different conclusion about the reasons behind the alarming rate of forest destruction in Brazil – roads cut to facilitate oil exploration and production led to agricultural development of forest land. This is only logical – farmers need roads to get their products to market.

Here is what one scholar found regarding oil roads and deforestation in the Amazon.

“More important than the direct clear-felling (of Amazon forest for oil industry roads) are the indirect impacts of road construction,” reads a report from S. Wunder in 1997, quoted in the New Fuel’s Alliance report on the greenhouse gas emissions of petroleum fuels. “It is generally recognized that oil activities ‘opened up’ new agricultural frontiers in the Northern Amazon region by building penetration roads into primary forest areas. Roads thus act as local determinants of deforestation, even in advance of their actual construction (Pichón 1997:71). In the first wave, this gives access to industrial logging operations; second, agricultural squatters follow in order to gradually clear the land by ‘slash and mulch’ methods… utilizing it mostly for commercial crops and extensive cattle ranching.”

Pembina, Boreal Forest Conservation, and the UN’s IBCC are now voicing concerns about the cutting of roads through Alberta’s northern forests, and we have to quote Yogi Berra and say this sounds like “déjà vu all over again.” We don’t know if road development in Alberta will lead to further human settlement and conversion of forest land to other uses, but this is certainly possible.

A Midwestern LCFS that doesn’t unfairly penalize ethanol

The more information, the better, says Jesse Heier, director of Midwestern Governors Association, which is developing a low carbon fuel standard specifically for the Midwest. It hopes this will provide a dozen state governments a useful model and an alternative to California’s policy, and one that “reflects what’s important to Midwesterners,” Heier said.

“The Midwestern Governors feel that the Midwest has been a leader in developing ethanol and the ethanol industry in their states continues to innovate, and want governments to be able to look to a range of low carbon fuel standards – to make sure it’s part of the discussion,” Heier said.

“Most policy makers would agree it makes sense if you are going to require one fuel to list its carbon intensity, it makes sense that all fuels have a carbon intensity. It gives the consumer more information about the product and that’s a plus,” Heier said. “As long as carbon intensity is figured out in a fair way, and one that all stakeholders can come to agreement as to how that is determined, that’s the key.”

While consensus would ultimately be appropriate, Coleman notes that the major oil companies have been “neutral to supportive of California’s low carbon fuel standard. That should alarm people.”

Most ethanol producers share a commonsense approach to energy production. If they urge lawmakers and officials to assure that every fuel gets treated the same, to the same standards, then the broad analysis that results will allow the inherent environmental benefit of ethanol, whether from corn or other sources of biomass, to earn it an expanding place in America’s energy future.

© American Coalition for Ethanol, all rights reserved.
The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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