Climate Wire ($ub. req’d) reports this morning, “Obama says ‘technology’ can fix oil sands skirmish”:

President Obama said “clean energy mechanisms,” like carbon capture and storage, would allow the United States to continue consuming Canadian sand oil, an emission-heavy fuel that often requires strip-mining vast stretches of boreal forest in the province of Alberta.

The assertion yesterday came two days before Obama is scheduled to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, and it promises to raise questions among environmental groups, which see the oil sands as a key contributor to climate change.

Uhh, no, no, no, and no. First, the tar sands are a key contributor to climate change — it is absurd for ClimateWire to hedge (and weaken) this fact by attributing it solely to environmental groups.

Second, the “biggest global warming crime ever seen” (see here) cannot be made green with carbon capture and storage, even in the unlikely event CCS proves practical for the tar sands. If the President wants to understand everything the tar sands would have to do to be “clean,” he should start with the pastoral letter of Canadian Bishop Luc Bouchard (see here).

Third, Obama said, “I think that it is possible, for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal.” Did he really say “oil sands”? I can understand why greenwashing Canadian shills use the phrase rather than the traditional term “tar sands” (see here), but not why the U.S. media does, and certainly not somebody as smart as Obama.

No doubt the phrase makes it seem like, oh, I don’t know, maybe up through the sand came a bubblin crude, oil that is, black gold, Texas tea, Athabasca euphemism (see ClimateProgress commenter, Jim Eager, here).

Also, Obama has made a mistake that is all too common on the climate policy arena — confusing the benefit of CCS for generating electricity with the benefit of using CCS for making liquid fuels.

If CCS were practical and affordable and scalable and verifiable, which currently seems unlikely (see here) then, yes, coal could be turned into a source of carbon free electricity (or even carbon-negative electricity when cofired with biomass). Then we could potentially use it without destroying the climate for as long as supplies last.

But even if CCS were practical and affordable with the tar sands, you’re still left with oil at the end of the day — and burning oil is the single biggest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions, which Obama has pledged to reduce to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. That pretty much means the only fossil fuel we will be using significantly by mid century is natural gas, since it is the lowest carbon fuel and can be burned very efficiently, unlike oil.

Finally, and relatedly, the ultimate reason the tar sands cannot be made green from a climate perspective is that Canada is diverting a considerable amount of its natural gas resources to extract and process the tar sands. That natural gas could be used to shut down Canadian and US coal plants, reducing their emissions by some two thirds. Even if the tar sands had CCS, you’d still be wasting vast amounts of natural gas and creating an immense “opportunity carbon cost.”

I have never seen a true full life-cycle analysis of the tar sands that considers that opportunity carbon cost, the coal plants that weren’t shut down or avoided by the diverted/wasted natural gas. As is the case with so many lifecycle analyses, the circle drawn around the inputs and outputs isn’t big enough.

Natural gas is simply too precious a carbon-reducing fuel to waste on making another carbon-intensive fuel like the output of the tar sands.

The bottom line is that technology can’t save humanity from the environmental blight that is the tar sands. Only homo sapiens sapiens can.

Here is the full ClimateWire story:

President Obama said “clean energy mechanisms,” like carbon capture and storage, would allow the United States to continue consuming Canadian sand oil, an emission-heavy fuel that often requires strip-mining vast stretches of boreal forest in the province of Alberta.

The assertion yesterday came two days before Obama is scheduled to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, and it promises to raise questions among environmental groups, which see the oil sands as a key contributor to climate change.

Canada’s accelerated development of the oil sands, a remote reserve of tar-like bitumen that offers more fossil fuel capacity than Saudi Arabia, is a flashpoint for Obama on his first international trip as president.

The president is weighing the benefits of having a neighborly source of oil against the negative result of its carbon emissions, which can be up to three times the emissions of conventional oil. It’s a calculation that comes as Obama tries to end the United States’ reliance on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela in 10 years.

As a backdrop, environmental groups are pressuring him to apply strict emission standards to the oil sands and their connected refineries. Some believe Harper is seeking special treatment for that sector, because of the benefits it provides to Canada’s economy and U.S. energy security.

Obama won’t say ‘dirty oil’
Obama declined to call the oil sands “dirty oil” in a White House interview yesterday with Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., but acknowledged that the process “creates a big carbon footprint.”

“So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is: How do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change?” he said.

“I think, to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they’re emitted into the atmosphere, that’s going to be good for everybody,” Obama added. “Because if we don’t, then we’re going to have a ceiling at some point in terms of our ability to expand our economies and maintain the standard of living that’s so important, particularly when you’ve got countries like China and India that are obviously interested in catching up.”

He believes the worst climatic effects from the oil sands can be “solved by technology.” Canada’s emissions have risen 25 percent since 1990, more than half of which is attributed to its fossil fuel industries.

“I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal,” Obama added.

Canada is reluctant to impose a carbon cap
The comments raise hairy questions about how those technologies will be designed and paid for. The oil sands present a unique challenge for carbon capture and storage, because the emissions are spread over large areas and include sources like massive trucks and diggers the size of homes.

Experts believe that carbon capture won’t be employed by oil companies until a cap-and-trade program is imposed in Canada. That could be years away. Environmentalists are critical of Harper’s proposal to use intensity-based standards beginning next year, saying emissions from the tar sands s
ectors would triple by 2017. The plan would also allow emitters to pay $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide over their limit — an amount widely considered too small to prompt corporations to invest in expensive carbon capture systems.

Carroll Muffett, deputy campaign instructor for Greenpeace, said the technical and regulatory hurdles surrounding carbon capture make it “arguably mythical.”

“This is simply a distraction,” he said of the technology, which can pull money away from renewable energy programs involving wind, solar and other sources.

A report at the end of 2007 by a group of oil and gas companies found that carbon capture could be quickly implemented with existing technology — if the government put a price tag of $70 on each ton of carbon. Under those conditions, almost 15 megatons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered underground within three years, according to the industry group, which calls itself ICO2N.

CCS can’t fix the forest
Obama’s comments could push corporations toward that process, if they believe the United States could limit their consumption of tar sand oil, according to Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank and advocacy group.

“I think that’s a very welcome message,” he said, but cautioned that emissions won’t be reduced until a cap-and-trade program with hard caps is imposed.

“That’s the real test of seriousness,” Bramley added. “Right now, the government of Canada has failed that test. Now we’ll see how serious the Obama administration is.”

The bitumen in oil sands is often harvested in open-pit mines, stripping boreal forest from vast expanses in northern Alberta. Drilling also occurs. The methods require an intense amount of energy and water, which is turned to steam to separate the bitumen from the clay.

“The tar sands project in Alberta is the antithesis of what the world needs,” George Woodwell, director emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center and a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.

Experts believe Obama and Harper will keep the mood light when they meet tomorrow in Ottawa. It’s unlikely that any agreements over the oil sands or a cap-and-trade program between the two countries will be made, said Paul Frazer, a former Canadian ambassador to the Czech Republic. It will likely set the mood for later deliberations, he added.

“I think it’s important not to overload or overburden the meeting,” Frazer told reporters at the Canada Institute.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.