By Brian Collett — ExxonMobil is curbing its tar sands oil operations in Alberta, but for economic, not environmental, reasons.
The oil company says it is removing significant tar sands oil assets from its books. The deposits will remain undisturbed as “stranded assets” because they are not sellable.
Critics who oppose tar sands oil extraction on the environmental argument may not be placated.
A previous ExxonMobil report acknowledged the climate change risk after pressure from shareholders, but the company “believed that any future capping of carbon-based fuels to the levels of a low carbon scenario is highly unlikely due to pressing social needs for energy”.
An environmental interpretation of ExxonMobil’s statements is that if consumers want oil and gas the company will still sell it.
ExxonMobil has actually said that, although substantial deposits of tar sands oil in the Kearl field in Alberta will remain untouched, it will continue operations there. It claims the reserves there amount to 1.3 billion barrels.
Opponents protest that extraction operations use as much water as the whole of Calgary, the tailing ponds water is toxic enough to kill ducks landing on it, the energy used for melting the tar to flow through pipes could otherwise heat three million homes, and production emits three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil producing.
The ExxonMobil decision coincides with legislation by the Alberta provincial government capping the greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands at 100 megatonnes a year. The present emissions have been estimated at 70 megatonnes.
The new law would permit more growth of emissions from oil sands, and officials have admitted the province has no method yet of enforcing the limit.
However, Shannon Phillips, Alberta’s Environment Minister, thought technological innovation sharply cutting emissions would keep production below the cap.
She said: “We have faith in Alberta industries to deliver.”