By: Michael Connors & Tammy Schmidt Issue: Resource Management Section: Academia
A Discussion with David Keith
Alberta’s Oil Sands are a nexus of heated debate concerning the future of energy exploration, both in the United States and Canada. Development of this resource is an economic benefit to both Canada and the U.S., but there are serious climate implications. During a trip to Alberta’s Oil Sands, ICOSA had the opportunity to spend some time with environmental scientist David Keith at the University of Calgary. Mr. Keith has worked closely with the interface between climate science, energy technology and public policy for 20 years. He took first prize in Canada's national physics prize exam, won MIT's prize for excellence in experimental physics, and was listed as one of TIME’s Heroes of the Environment 2009. Keith’s academic appointments are at Harvard where he serves as the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and as Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He divides his time between Boston and Calgary where he also serves as president of Carbon Engineering, a start-up company developing industrial scale technologies for capture of CO2 (carbon dioxide) from ambient air.
His expertise has guided numerous government panels on climate science and theory, and in an interview with Keith, we were able to glean a new, broader perspective of the climate debate with regard to the Alberta Oil Sands.
Essentially, Keith contextualizes the Oil Sands development in a way that makes the over-arching climate debate accessible to an average person. While most believe that the Oil Sands will be developed, Mr. Keith advocates transitioning away from Oil Sands development as soon as possible and replacing that fuel source with lower carbon energy alternatives. Right now, he notes that Calgary is a mecca for people who know how to develop large capital projects, and industry will do what industry does. “If we're serious about being a clean energy superpower," Keith said with a wry smile, "you would want to actually think about putting enough money into one or two areas that you could build globally competitive industries on energy technologies that are going to win in a carbon concerning world." Mr. Keith, essentially, helps place the development of the Oil Sands within a broader context. Simply put, Mr. Keith advocates the abandonment of oil itself.
However, his angst and concern about the future of oil sand development lies with the people who make the policy. Ideally, he suggests, Canada should take the wealth generated from the sale of oil from Alberta and re-invest that money into a low carbon energy source that could be developed and advanced in Canada and then sold to other countries when carbon becomes too expensive to release. "I don't think we should shut down the Oil Sands today, but we need to use that wealth to invest it in things that allow us to thrive when those things are shut down. I don't see that the current federal government gets that long-term challenge," said Mr. Keith.
Countries like China are currently developing renewable energy technologies to the tune of $1 trillion dollars per year, and will, in the future, be able to resell this technology to countries like the U.S. and Canada. The prospect of losing competitive advantage to other countries is particularly frustrating to someone who knows that the same talent and know-how is available in Canada. "You could make strategic decisions to actually develop a new reactor technology or adapt one," he explained. "China has made a single decision to go with a certain reactor design. They've got multiple vendors and they are actually building them. And when we decide what we want 30 years from now, we are going to have to buy that technology from them. That is not a way to make a successful economy in the long run." He is personally involved in developing a carbon capture method that would pull carbon out of the air, and in the long run this technology could be used to produce carbon neutral hydrocarbon fuels from carbon free energy sources such as nuclear or solar power. But the carbon debate surrounding the Oil Sands, in his view, is one focused on tactics and strategies by both industry and environmentalists and often misses the big picture of energy 100 years from now.
Professor Keith opines, "The environmental community will say all sorts of stuff about why they don't like the Oil Sands, but the underlying sensible strategic view is that they want to kill them. They're not interested in making it 10 percent better because 10 percent better isn't the issue. You could eliminate the emissions from the Oil Sands process, and you still have only solved 10 to 20 percent of the problem." He continues by noting, "In the long run if we are serious about climate risk, and we should be, we must be serious about moving away from oil as a transportation fuel. This means ending Oil Sands production no matter what. The problem for climate is not the environmental emissions from the Oil Sands production, it is the carbon in the product itself. In the long run, we cannot keep burning carbon we took from the ground if we want a stable climate."
These types of conversations tend to result in governments legislating bit-by-bit solutions—adding wind power or eliminating tailings ponds, for example. Keith would prefer to see the Canadian government plan for years and generations ahead. "They're not at the point where the regulation is going to come by itself. I presume that we are not going to keep putting carbon into the air at this rate, but maybe we will," he said. He goes on to say that when stiffer regulations do come, it will be devastating to the Alberta economy because new investment will stop instantly.
There will be a transition from fossil fuels to some renewable energy at some point, when carbon becomes too expensive, both financially and environmentally. And as history has taught, transition is painful. Keith advocates for selecting and developing technologies now that will advance into the distant future. He said, “It would require the kind of leadership and drive that Japan had in post-war times. I mean, it requires people to really think 30 years out and to reduce some current consumption in order to build stuff in the future.”
This leadership would do more to secure Canada's long-term economic and environmental future. He maintains that by taking climate change seriously and its impact on future economies as well as environmental hazards, sensible decisions can be made.
"One of the problems is, we put a little money into everything," said Keith. "Our competitors aren't doing that. We can't innovate everything. We must make some strategic national choices." Again, Mr. Keith helps the public to envision a country’s energy picture into the distant future.
In reality, it's not as simple as making an energy choice. With a government committed to accelerated growth, it is difficult for technologies and industries to not only keep up, but to develop the best methods. Says Mr. Keith, "It's harder to develop other industries here because it raises all the wage and labor rates. It makes us more and more committed to it, and it's going to make the crash that much more devastating."
Progress in climate change is a long, slow road. The first major report by a president on climate change was from President Johnson in 1965, and according to Keith, it had all the correct science. Since then, it’s been a pattern of discussion, regulation, legislation and gradual change.
Says Keith, "We've made huge environmental progress since 1959 on climate. He concludes by encapsulating the climate debate thusly: "Climate action is not popular now, but the climate risk goes up with every ton of carbon we put into the atmosphere quite independent of current opinion. The Clean Air Act really did make a big improvement. Water quality also got better, and we solved the ozone problem; so it's not like we can't do these things. We still should go further."