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Tar Sands? Oil Sands? Two U.W. delegates travel to Northern Alberta

Anne DelMelle
Anne DeMelle holding a sample of bitumen later refined into oil.

October 31, 2012

by Todd Wildermuth, School of Law


In late August, Todd Wildermuth, School of Law, and Anne DeMelle, Program on the Environment, participated in the Energy and Environmental Study Tour to Alberta.

The Energy and Environment Study Tour to Alberta on August 28-30, 2012, was extraordinary in many respects. The governments of Canada and Alberta are keenly interested in developing their oil sands resources and eager to convince the global community they can do so with no worse effects than oil produced elsewhere. To their great credit, and as a result of decades of government and private research, companies are finding new ways to extract oil from Albertan sands with a smaller physical footprint. The iconic images of the tar sands – the massive strip mines, the tailings ponds, the enormous trucks moving tons of earth – are apparently the past, and not the future, of oil sands production.

With newer, less intrusive, and mostly underground methods of obtaining oil, the locus of discussion has changed overwhelmingly to climate change. Again, due credit goes to the provincial and federal governments for attempting to reduce the carbon intensity of oil sands production. Alas, most of the carbon contribution of a barrel of oil comes from its ultimate consumption, so improving production efficiencies only takes one so far. What, then, is Canada’s or Alberta’s climate change responsibility to the global community? Given the many downsides of climate change, should Alberta consider an alternative course of leaving this oil in the ground?

On this tour, these were the great unanswered – indeed, largely unasked – questions. The focus of this tour was almost exclusively how to get more oil out of the sands more profitably and more efficiently. Standing atop one of the world’s largest readily developable pools of carbon, I was amazed and dismayed. Amazed at the great industry and intelligence that Canadians have invested in making oil from the sands an accessible national asset. Dismayed that no similar enthusiasm or creativity has been brought to rethinking that asset’s danger in a changing climate.

Delegates from across the United States travel to Fort McMurray to few, first hand, Alberta’s oil/tar sands. Todd Wildermuth (far left), Anne DeMelle (third from left).

Participants on the Study Tour traveled to Edmonton, Alberta where they met with the Government of Alberta and other representatives. On Wednesday, 29 August 2012, they traveled to Fort McMurray and visited the oil sands mining and in situ sites. On their return to Edmonton the group met with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

Todd A. Wildermuth is Scholar in Residence at the University of Washington School of Law and recently joined the Canadian Studies Center as an Affiliated Faculty. He teaches courses in land use permitting and land conservation, and coordinates the environmental and natural resource law program of the law school. Todd will be incorporating the issue of Alberta energy development into his course, “Land-Use Planning and Permitting in Practice,” Fall Quarter 2012, and into a case study for the U.W. Program on the Environment honors seminar, Spring 2013. 

Anne DeMelle runs a graduate certificate program in the U.W.’s Program on the Environment to help launch the next generation of environmental leaders. Previously, Anne developed sustainable business strategies and has raised millions to support the ground-breaking work of non-profits that protect public health and the environment. In fall and winter quarters Anne will be working with a group of U.W. graduate students as they advise the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the environmental risks associated with shipping tar sands oil near or through U.S. waters.

The Energy and Environment Study Tour to Alberta was sponsored by the Government of Canada and Government of Alberta.

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