The lingering afterlife of fossil fuels

Australia and Canada have a lot in common. As products of British colonisation the two countries have a vaguely similar recent history. In land area and population, Canada is bigger, but not much.

And they are both well endowed with fossil fuels – enough to make them globally significant exporters of both gas and coal. Canada also has very big reserves of oil, but in a form requiring a lot of processing before it can be exported and used. 

The world has already used most readily accessible oil and gas. We are now at the point in fossil fuel exploration and use whereby most new deposits require a high level of technology to turn the carbon into a marketable product. 

Canada’s oil sand deposits in northern Alberta have have been known about for centuries, but the processes of extracting bitumen from the sandy ground, then treating it to turn it into a saleable product and transport it over vast distances to where it’s needed, were long thought to be both environmentally disastrous and uneconomical. 

There are similar issues around natural gas. Once a matter of just drilling a hole in the right place, gas retrieval increasingly calls for fracturing underground rock structures, or “fracking”, to reach otherwise inaccessible deposits. 

This rapidly-developing technology, also used to reach once-inaccessible pockets of oil, adds exponentially to the amount of deposit retrieved. Over the past decade or so it has delivered huge bonuses to numerous national economies, including Australia’s. 

But it too comes at a big environmental cost. Fracking, says the Yale School of Public Health, “creates vast amounts of wastewater, emits greenhouse gases such as methane, releases toxic air pollutants and generates noise. Studies have shown these gas and oil operations can lead to loss of animal and plant habitats, species decline, migratory disruptions and land degradation.”

The environmental cost of gas extraction doesn’t stop there. The processing hubs producing transportable LNG (liquefied natural gas) release toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, and many facilities also degrade coastal defences against storms and sea level rise.

For both Alberta oil and LNG, the environmental cost includes greenhouse gas emissions, in quantities that none of the interests involved in their extraction has any real interest in measuring or publicising. 

The Canadian and Albertan governments have announced plans to increase tar-sands output by 40 per cent over the next 12 years – which will increase the industry’s emissions by 30 megatonnes to 100 megatonnes a year, an increase equivalent to annual transport emissions for the province of Ontario. But the proposal looks unlikely to go anywhere in the face of numerous alternative supplies of less problematic crude from elsewhere in the world.

After years of scientific concern that life-cycle methane emissions from natural gas have not been represented in official industry emissions data, in the US last week the White House paused LNG export permits to assess their climate change impact.

But the worldwide drive to capture and burn every last molecule of oil or gas will not simply go away. A deeply held mindset in government, big business and more widely – in the US and everywhere else – is that fossil fuel production and export are economic bedrock. It has been that way since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

This stubborn attitude is being fed by industry propaganda, at the massive scale and reach that we should always have expected from big, powerful corporations whose very existence depends on exploiting reserves and discovering new ones.

This is despite numerous warnings over many years from climate scientists, the United Nations, the European Union and the International Energy Agency that every new gas field opened up and every new piece of infrastructure built is simply adding to our climate peril.

The stakes could not be higher. While you won’t hear much about this from the big players, they are searching for opportunities to shore up their business against bad times ahead. Hence the proposal to merge two big Australian gas producers, Woodside and Santos, an idea that bit the dust last week leaving Santos more vulnerable than ever.

In Australia as in North America, Europe and the Middle East, greenwashing has become a marketing weapon of choice by the companies concerned, based on the myths, adopted where it suits by governments, that burning oil, gas and coal can be “clean”, that emissions can be captured and stored, and that these industries are fundamental to our wellbeing.

On the contrary: in a world desperate for effective climate measures gas is dangerous – certainly no substitute for coal – and digging up bitumen to make oil is certifiably insane.

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