Blog Archive

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Rising methane emissions in response to climate change in Northern Eurasia during the 21st century," by Xudong Zhu et al., ERL 6 (2011); doi:10.1088/1748-9326/6/4/045211

Environmental Research Letters, 6(4) (November 2011) 045211; doi:10.1088/1748-9326/6/4/045211 

Rising methane emissions in response to climate change in Northern Eurasia during the 21st century

Xudong Zhu1, Qianlai Zhuang1,2, Min Chen1, Andrey Sirin3, Jerry Melillo4, David Kicklighter4, Andrei Sokolov5 and Lulu Song6


We used a biogeochemistry model, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model (TEM), to examine the methane (CH4) exchanges between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere in Northern Eurasia from 1971 to 2100. Multiple model simulations using various wetland extent datasets and climate change scenarios were conducted to assess the uncertainty of CH4 fluxes, including emissions and consumption. On the basis of these simulations we estimate the current net emissions in the region to be 20–24 Tg CH4 yr − 1 (1 Tg = 1012 g), two-thirds of which are emitted during the summer. In response to climate change over the 21st century, the annual CH4 emissions in the region are projected to increase at a rate of 0.06 Tg CH4 yr − 1, which is an order of magnitude greater than that of annual CH4 consumption. Further, the annual net CH4 emissions are projected to increase by 6–51% under various wetland extent datasets and climate scenarios by the end of the 21st century, relative to present conditions. Spatial patterns of net CH4 emissions were determined by wetland extent. Net CH4 emissions were dominated by wetlands within boreal forests, grasslands and wet tundra areas in the region. Correlation analyses indicated that water table depth and soil temperature were the two most important environmental controls on both CH4 emissions and consumption in the region. Our uncertainty analyses indicated that the uncertainty in wetland extent had a larger effect on future CH4 emissions than the uncertainty in future climate. This study suggests that better characterization of the spatial distribution and the natural diversity of wetlands should be a research priority for quantifying CH4 fluxes in this region.

CBS: Historic Texas drought could leave lasting impact -- "It was basically off the charts," said John Nielsen-Gammon, a climatologist for the state of Texas. "Based on past history, you wouldn't expect to see it happen in maybe 500 or a 1,000 years."

Historic Texas drought could leave lasting impact

Anna Werner, CBS News, November 30, 2011

On Tuesday, the drought in Texas was declared the worst in a century, across nearly the whole state. The drought ranges from severe to exceptional.
It is expected to last until next summer. But as CBS News correspondent Anna Werner reports, the damage could go on for years.
At the Mainstay Farm south of Fort Worth, owner Marianna Wilson still takes school kids on hayrides. They can run a maze or cook marshmallows. What they can't do this year is watch someone cut down a fresh Christmas tree.
"Well you're gonna lose trees from year to year," said Wilson when asked how this year compares to last. "But no, it was bad."
Normally Wilson's fields would be filled with customers cutting their own Christmas trees. But this year the farm lost a quarter of its trees -- 1,500 trees that have died in the drought.
"When you turn on an oven for 80-90 days that we had dry," said Wilson, "it's like baking anything that's outside."
"It was basically off the charts," said John Nielsen-Gammon, a climatologist for the state of Texas. "Based on past history, you wouldn't expect to see it happen in maybe 500 or a 1,000 years.
"One more year and we're already talking about probably a drought more severe than anything we've ever had," he said. "This will become for them the drought of record."
The weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to continue to keep rain away from Texas. The impact will be felt for years to come.
Already, damage to agriculture is more than $5 billion as ranchers are forced to sell off cattle they can't feed. The state's reservoirs are 40 percent below normal and communities like Groesbeck, Texas may run out of water within weeks.
To replace the trees she lost, farmer Wilson shipped in extra Frasier firs from North Carolina and she's planting more of a drought-resistant strain of Christmas trees. She says they grow well in this climate: they're from Arizona.

"Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw" by Edward A. G. Schuur & Benjamin Abbott, Nature 480 (December 1, 2011)

(December 1, 2011);
Published online

Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw

We calculate that permafrost thaw will release the same order of magnitude of carbon as deforestation if current rates of deforestation continue. But because these emissions include significant quantities of methane, the overall effect on climate could be 2.5 times larger.
Abrupt thaw, as seen here in Alaska's Noatak National Preserve, causes the land to collapse, accelerating permafrost degradation and carbon release.
Recent years have brought reports from the far north of tundra fires1, the release of ancient carbon2, CH4bubbling out of lakes3 and gigantic stores of frozen soil carbon4. The latest estimate is that some 18.8 million square kilometres of northern soils hold about 1,700 billion tonnes of organic carbon4 — the remains of plants and animals that have been accumulating in the soil over thousands of years. That is about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now.
This soil carbon amount is more than three times higher than previous estimates, largely because of the realization that organic carbon is stored much deeper in frozen soils than was thought. Inventories typically measure carbon in the top metre of soil. But the physical mixing during freeze–thaw cycles, in combination with sediment deposition over hundreds and thousands of years, has buried permafrost carbon many metres deep.
The answers to three key questions will determine the extent to which the emission of this carbon will affect climate change: How much is vulnerable to release into the atmosphere? In what form it will be released? And how fast will it be released? These questions are easily framed, but challenging to answer.

Known unknowns

As soils defrost, microbes decompose the ancient carbon and release CH4 and carbon dioxide. Not all carbon is equally vulnerable to release: some soil carbon is easily metabolized and transformed to gas, but more complex molecules are harder to break down. The bulk of permafrost carbon will be released slowly over decades after thaw, but a smaller fraction could remain within the soil for centuries or longer. The type of gas released also affects the heat-trapping potential of the emissions. Waterlogged, low-oxygen environments are likely to contain microbes that produce CH4 — a potent greenhouse gas with about 25 times more warming potential than CO2 over a 100-year period. However, waterlogged environments also tend to retain more carbon within the soil. It is not yet understood how these factors will act together to affect future climate.
The ability to project how much carbon will be released is hampered both by the fact that models do not account for some important processes, and by a lack of data to inform the models. For example, most large-scale models project that permafrost warming depends on how much the air is warming above them. This warming then boosts microbial activity and carbon release. But this is a simplification. Abrupt thaw processes can cause ice wedges to melt and the ground surface to collapse, accelerating the thaw of frozen ground5. Evidence of rapid thaw is widespread: you can see it in the 'drunken' trees that tip dangerously as a result of ground subsidence, and in collapsed hill slopes marked by scars from landslides. These are just some of the complex processes that models don't include.
At the same time, few data are available to support these models because of the difficulties of gathering data in extreme environments. Only a handful of remote field stations around the world are collecting data to support this research, even though the permafrost zone covers about almost one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's land area. The field studies that do exist confirm that permafrost thaw is tightly linked to ground subsidence and soil moisture as well as temperature. So modelling carbon emissions from permafrost thaw is much more complex than a simple response to temperature alone.
Models have flaws, but experts intimately familiar with these landscapes and processes have accumulated knowledge about what they expect to happen, based on quantitative data and qualitative understanding of these systems. We have attempted to quantify this expertise through a survey developed over several years.

Survey says

'Drunken' trees reveal areas of subsidence.
Our survey asks what percentage of the surface permafrost is likely to thaw, how much carbon will be released, and how much of that carbon will be CH4, for three time periods and under four warming scenarios that will be part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report. The lowest warming scenario projects 1.5 °C Arctic warming over the 1985–2004 average by the year 2040, ramping up to 2 °C by 2100; the highest warming scenario considers 2.5 °C by 2040, and 7.5 °C by 2100. In all cases, we posited that the temperature would remain steady from 2100 to 2300 so that we could assess opinions about the time lag in the response of permafrost carbon to temperature change.
The survey was filled out this year by 41 international scientists, listed as authors here, who publish on various aspects of permafrost. The results are striking. Collectively, we hypothesize that the high warming scenario will degrade 9–15% of the top 3 metres of permafrost by 2040, increasing to 47–61% by 2100 and 67–79% by 2300 (these ranges are the 95%confidence intervals around the group's mean estimate). The estimated carbon release from this degradation is 30 billion to 63 billion tonnes of carbon by 2040, reaching 232 billion to 380 billion tonnes by 2100 and 549 billion to 865 billion tonnes by 2300. These values, expressed in CO2equivalents, combine the effect of carbon released as both CO2 and as CH4.
Our estimate for the amount of carbon released by 2100 is 1.7–5.2 times larger than those reported in several recent modelling studies678, all of which used a similar warming scenario. This reflects, in part, our perceived importance of the abrupt thaw processes, as well as our heightened awareness of deep carbon pools. Active research is aimed at incorporating these main issues, along with others, into models.
Are our projected rapid changes to the permafrost soil carbon pool plausible? The survey predicts a 7–11%drop in the size of the permafrost carbon pool by 2100 under the high-warming scenario. That scale of carbon loss has happened before: a 7–14% decrease has been measured in soil carbon inventories across thousands of sites in the temperate-zone United Kingdom as a result of climate change9. Also, data scaled up from a single permafrost field site point to a potential 5% loss over a century as a result of widespread permafrost thaw2. These field results generally agree with the collective carbon-loss projection made by this survey, so it should indeed be plausible.
Across all the warming scenarios, we project that most of the released carbon will be in the form of CO2, with only about 2.7% in the form of CH4. However, because CH4 has a higher global-warming potential, almost half the effect of future permafrost-zone carbon emissions on climate forcing is likely to be from CH4. That is roughly consistent with the tens of billions of tonnes of CH4 thought to have come from oxygen-limited environments in northern ecosystems after the end of the last glacial period10.
All this points towards significant carbon releases from permafrost-zone soils over policy-relevant timescales. It also highlights important lags whereby permafrost degradation and carbon emissions are expected to continue for decades or centuries after global temperatures stabilize at new, higher levels. Of course, temperatures might not reach such high levels. Our group's estimate for carbon release under the lowest warming scenario, although still quite sizeable, is about one-third of that predicted under the strongest warming scenario.
Knowing how much carbon will be released from the permafrost zone in this century and beyond is crucial for determining the appropriate response. But despite the massive amount of carbon in permafrost soils, emissions from these soils are unlikely to overshadow those from the burning of fossil fuels, which will continue to be the main source of climate forcing. Permafrost carbon release will still be an important amplifier of climate change, however, and is in some ways more problematic: it occurs in remote places, far from human influence, and is dispersed across the landscape. Trapping carbon emissions at the source — as one might do at power plants — is not an option. And once the soils thaw, emissions are likely to continue for decades, or even centuries.
The scientific community needs to collect more data and develop more-sophisticated models to test the hypotheses presented by this survey. Fortunately, awareness of the problem is increasing and these are starting to happen. The US Department of Energy, for example, has initiated a project called Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments — Arctic, which aims to improve the representation of these processes in large-scale models. NASA is pursuing an Arctic–Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, which aims to improve satellite observations of this region. The Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon Research Coordination Network funded by the US National Science Foundation, of which we are part, is bringing together people and observations to synthesize results and validate models. These are just some of the many international initiatives aimed at filling these research gaps.
In the meantime, our survey outlines the additional risk to society caused by thawing of the frozen north, and underscores the urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions from fossil-fuel use and deforestation. This will help to keep permafrost carbon frozen in the ground.

On Roy Spencer's unscientific methods

Seeing both currents of denialism converge and gain strength under a single party’s political banner over the last few years has been like watching half of the US turn away from reason itself because it didn’t align with their preferred set of sound bite-driven platitudes. It didn’t have to be this way. The reason Stephen Colbert can quip about reality’s “well-known liberal bias” is because in important issues the political right is moving further away from reality. The political climate has made accepting well-vetted scientific findings in certain areas a complete anathema to electability.
I learned a lot about science itself when I was exposed to the manufactroversy over evolution and Creationism. Years of absorbing knowledge and watching exchanges between scientists and anti-evolutionists was tremendously fascinating and educational for me. Familiarizing myself with real science and the anti-science tactics used by evolution deniers has stood me in good stead when it came to evaluating the merits of mainstream climate science and the rhetoric of denialists. That there is much overlap between the two denialist sets has been sadly unsurprising, as they often require the same kinds of fallacies to be accepted.
As an example of the overlapping requirements for climate and evolution denialism, I offer not a politician, but in fact a real live climate scientist. Roy Spencer is one of the two principal researchers behind the development of the University of Alabama Huntsville lower troposphere temperature record, gleaned from a network of satellites that interpret the signals of radiant energy coming through the atmosphere and out into space. For years he’s been a very capable scientist and has many peer-reviewed publications under his belt. But lately he’s been diverging away from the climate science mainstream by suggesting that some key forcings have been misunderstood widely by his colleagues, mostly related to clouds. He firmly believes that they have the relationship between cloud cover and climate trends backwards. He believes that climate sensitivity to increasing greenhouse gases is extraordinarily low, and so anthropogenic GHG emissions can’t be driving the current warming trend anywhere near the extent it’s commonly accepted to by his peers, and that warming won’t be a problem for the future. Well, that’s all well and good, right? Disagreements are a fact of life even (especially!) in the sciences.
But rather than work through the issue in the peer-reviewed literature, the bulk of his efforts have been spent in convincing the public of his side through his blog and books, largely not engaging the rest of the climate scientists. It’s not that he hasn’t tried period, but sometimes his papers are rejected; he’s convinced that this is due to a real conspiracy against him by a small cabal of “alarmists,” to keep his work out of the literature and keep dissenting opinions from circulating. Not unlike attempts by anti-evolutionists to smear the scientific establishment and accuse them of being censorious gatekeepers, rejecting any paper that criticizes evolution. For the last few years he has intentionally avoided submitting his work to rigorously peer-reviewed outlets in favor of a faster-turnaround, refereed Letters-type journal, because of his imagined conspiracy. We see a similar retreat from peer-review when researchers adopt an anti-evolution mindset.
Other troubling signs of losing his grip on scientific methods include a diminishing willingness to criticize his own ideas. He apparently ranks his own expertise very highly, to the point that the introduction to his popular book included musings that either he is smarter than all of the rest of his peers, or they must be dishonestly avoiding the conclusions he has reached (he favors the latter). He did not mention that he could simply be mistaken. He’s been fond of criticizing climate models because he believes them to be largely exercised as curve-fitting without real physical merit, but that didn’t stop him from attempting to create a simple model which turned out to be an exercise in curve-fitting without real physical merit. Despite several deep criticisms of his approach, he continued to develop the model in all the wrong ways. (When a paper based on an earlier model was held up in review, and then not given much attention immediately afterwards, he took it as evidence that his message was being censored and suppressed instead of any kind of issue over the paper’s validity). How many times have Dembski, Sewell, Behe, and so on. pushed papers that they claimed demonstrated evolution as impossible and Design a superior explanation by using a bogus model of information, complex systems, 2LoT, etc.? Even after being called out over the fatal flaws, they either dismiss the criticisms or attempt to “fix” the model by changing something other than what was criticized?
When anti-evolutionists want to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed venue, they often choose journals with weak reviews, friendly editors, or even inappropriate expertise. Sewell’s papers about evolution and 2LoT were arguably such subversion of peer-review. Spencer’s last peer-reviewed paper (Spencer and Braswell 2011) was published in the small, young journal Remote Sensing. Immediately after it came out, Spencer penned a press release that lied about what the paper contained and this misleading picture was quickly picked up by certain politically-aligned elements of the media with wildly misleading headlines and coverage. This prompted the Editor-in-Chief of the journal to investigate the matter and what he found was such flagrant abuse of the review system that he resigned almost immediately, leaving a damning account of the peer-review failure (prompting Spencer to claim that he was really forced out by IPCC conspirators). The paper has since been disemboweled with a peer-reviewed response (PDF) and by heavy scrutiny on scientist-run blogs. The whole thing was disaster; the paper’s arguments were not strong, didn’t support the claims Spencer had made to the press, it was revealed that data used in the study contradicted their findings, and so on. The whole thing was different from peer-review subversion by anti-evolutionists only in the amount of public attention it received. Spencer still maintains that the EiC was ‘Expelled’ as it were, and that there is no problem with the paper.
Where the overlap becomes most obvious in Spencer is that he has become an outspoken endorser of Creationism over evolution. He’s lent his reputation as a scientist to the claim that a Special Creation account is more scientific than evolution. Granted, it’s not uncommon for a scientist in one field to be deeply wrong about the state of a totally different field, however most don’t pin their credibility as practitioners of science to such opinions as blatantly as Spencer has. Taking this even further into the realm of anti-science, Spencer is a member of the Cornwall Alliance, a religious organization that holds as its central belief the idea that God wouldn’t create a world so fragile that humans could seriously muck it up. He has signed their Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming which outlines the faith-based nature of their conviction that recent warming is not us, and is nothing to worry about. This is tantamount to admitting that his stance on anthropogenic global warming is now a matter of religious faith, not a properly scientific view with all the tentativeness and provisional nature that implies.
So in Spencer we have the following: A) belief in a conspiracy to suppress his dissenting opinion and censor the literature to align with their agenda, B) distancing his work from peer-review, C) an overriding uncritical belief in his own abilities such that him being correct and everyone else being wrong doesn’t raise a warning flag, D) an inability to distinguish between legitimate science and pseudoscience despite claiming to have looked into the matter dutifully and using his expertise as a practicing scientist, E) a religious Statement of Faith revealing that he has abandoned proper scientific skepticism. The overlap between AGW denialism and evolution denialism has never been so well embodied. The same kinds of misconceptions and shortcomings that are needed for one to accept the cdesign proponentsists’ narrative now seem to be compromising Spencer’s performance in his own area of expertise. This is clear evidence that anti-evolutionism is anti-science, period. One doesn’t need a political platform to draw these denialist currents together, but as we can see it certainly does help.
Sorry for the length and links, but I believe in being thorough when making this kind of case against a person.

Score A Big One For #OccupyRochester

Score A Big One For #OccupyRochester

by: phillip anderson

Mon Nov 28, 2011 at 10:25:59 AM EST

Here's a great story from Rochester to start your week.
Victory for the Steidel Family: Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac Call Off Eviction!

Just days after Take Back the Land Rochester and Occupy Rochester publicly vowed to set up an encampment and blockade at 107 Clay Ave. if the bank came to evict the Steidel family, Freddie Mac called off the controversial eviction slated for this week in order to try to find a permenant settlement between Wells Fargo and Steidel family.  This incredible premilinary victory follwed a dramatic turn of events that included a public appeal from the family, invervention by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a protest at Wells Fargo, and Freddie Mac announcing that they were banning their notorious law firm, Steven J. Baum (the law firm for the Steidel foreclosure and eviction), from handling their cases.The Steidels received notice that their home would be foreclosed on in September. Not knowing what else to do, Maria Steidel remembered seeing Take Back the Land Rochester (TBTL) on the news, after the group successfully defended the Lennon Family from eviction earlier this year. She called the news station, and luckily, they gave her contact information that put her in touch with TBTL and, ultimately, Occupy Rochester.
In the past two weeks, numerous protests and actions were organized to support the Steidels in the fight to keep their home. An impromptu press conference was held just as Rochester Mayor Richards appeared, media in tow, to sign an agreement with Occupy Rochester for our right to camp 24 hours a day.
On November 7, 90 people protested outside Wells Fargo's Rochester offices, demanding they negotiate with the family. Three dozen protesters from Occupy Buffalo also demonstrated in front of the Amherst offices of Steven J. Baum PC, denouncing the controversial foreclosure attorney and calling on state authorities to shut down his office, take away his law license and even put him in jail.
Occupy Rochester and publicly announced its intention to set up an encampment on the Steidel's front lawn to prevent the imminent eviction and draw media attention to the case. However, it never came to that. Harold and Maria received word that they had secured at 30-day suspension of the eviction notice. Furthermore, Freddie Mac announced that they were pulling Steven J. Baum's firm off every foreclosure case they had.
The implications of this move on other families and their cases is unclear. However, Baum's firm was one of the largest handlers of foreclosures in upstate New York, and any uncertainty over the company's legal practices and filings could mean a delay on thousands of foreclosure cases.
Following similar victories in San Francisco, Minneapolis and a number of other cities, the Occupy Movement is proving it is willing to fight on the front lines of the war on working people. More importantly, it is proving that it can win.
More like this, please.
Kudos to #OccupyRochester, Congresswoman Slaughter, Take Back The Land Rochester and everyone else who fought to make this victory possible.
h/t to Occupy Our Homes

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

China invests billions in Canada oil sands

China invests billions in Canada oil sands

  • Robert Lee, a lab technician at ConocoPhillips' Surmont oil sands project in Alberta, examines a vial of water and oil sediment. Looking on is Perry Berkenpas, vice president of oil sands operations for ConocoPhillips Canada. / HC
    Robert Lee, a lab technician at ConocoPhillips' Surmont oil sands project in Alberta, examines a vial of water and oil sediment. Looking on is Perry Berkenpas, vice president of oil sands operations for ConocoPhillips Canada.
     / HC

More Information

For decades, U.S. and Canadian companies were the biggest investors in Canada's oil sands reserves. But other countries, led by China, have poured billions into Canada's oil sands projects in the past few years.

2005: China's CNOOC buys 17% stake in Calgary-based MEG Energy Corp.

2010: PetroChina International Investment Co. buys 60 percent working interest in Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.'s MacKay River and Dover oil sands projects.
Sinopec (China Petrochemical Corp.) buys ConocoPhillips' 9% stake in Syncrude Canada, the world's biggest oil sands producer.

China Investment Corp. buys 45% stake in an oil sands project owned by Penn West Energy Trust.
Thailand-based PTT Exploration and Production buys 40% share in Statoil's Kai Kos Dehseh oil sands project.

2011: CNOOC acquires the bankrupt OPTI Canada, whose main asset was a 35 percent working interest in Nexen's Long Lake oil sands project.

Source: Houston Chronicle research
FORT McMURRAY, Alberta - As U.S. companies look toward oil riches in northern Canada, they're encountering increasing competition - as well as some much-needed cash infusions - from the Far East.
U.S. and Canadian companies have dominated Alberta's oil sands for decades. Now, though, Chinese firms are rushing to snap up Canadian oil sands resources and invest in ongoing projects - to the tune of $15 billion in the past 18 months in Alberta alone.
They are motivated by a desire to jump into one of the world's lowest-risk oil investments and to quench the exploding energy demands of Asian markets - even though getting the product from Canada to Asia is just a pipe dream now.
The foreign funding can help pay for what research firm IHS CERA estimates will be $100 billion in spending on oil sands projects over the next decade.
And for a growing number of U.S. oil companies, many based in Houston, the infusion of Chinese cash in Canadian projects is welcome funding for some capital-intensive oil sands projects.
"Many of the actual oil companies - no matter where they are from - are very interested in partnering," said Jackie Forrest, the Calgary, Alberta-based head of oil sands research for IHS CERA. "That can help raise capital and, in some cases, also bring expertise and knowledge to the partnership."
Most of the recent deals have been by Chinese companies buying shares in existing projects. For instance, Sinopec spent $4.65 billion last year buying ConocoPhillips' 9 percent stake in Syncrude Canada Ltd., the world's biggest oil sands producer. And earlier this summer, state-owned CNOOC spent $2.1 billion acquiring the bankrupt OPTI Canada, whose main asset was a 35 percent working interest in Nexen's Long Lake oil sands project in Alberta.
Plants want to expand
That influx of capital can help companies ramp up production and expand operations at existing projects, said Alberta Minister of Energy Ronald Liepert.
"Plants that are currently 25,000 barrels a day, they want to expand to 100,000 barrels a day, and they don't have the capital to do that," he said. "So they're actually on the prowl for investment - and there's real money in China."
China isn't the only country getting into the oil sands game from across the Pacific. Companies based in Thailand and Australia also have made plays recently for Canadian oil sands projects and portfolios.
Major draws are the low geological risks of Canada's well-explored oil sands, and the nation's political stability.
"You know the oil is there, so the risk is more in executing the project, getting it online and getting the capital associated with building the project," Forrest said.
The Canadian market offers fewer barriers, said Nick Olds, the senior vice president of oil sands for ConocoPhillips Canada.
"With the oil sands, you've got a significant resource - 173 billion barrels of oil recoverable with current technology, and that's only going to get better," Olds said.
"If you look at other areas of the world," he said, "it is very difficult to get access to (the) resource." By contrast, the oil sands in Canada are "not state-controlled and they're not government-owned."
The "oil" in the Canadian oil sands is bitumen, a hydrocarbon that is as hard as a hockey puck at 50 degrees and can be refined into synthetic crude oil or other products. The oil sands in Alberta are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen that is extracted by open-pit mining and by less invasive in situ techniques that use heat to draw the bitumen directly from the underground reservoirs.
Canada's oil sands bounty makes it second only to Saudi Arabia in its reserve base. Its recoverable oil is estimated to be more than 10 times U.S. reserves.
Since China doesn't have similar oil sands deposits, the Asian companies investing in Canadian crude aren't so concerned with getting technology and know-how out of their deals. Instead, they are getting the promise of strong returns and the chance of eventually sending some of that oil home.
"There is a long-term plan to get oil to the East, and it will happen," said Liepert, the Alberta energy minister.
Right now, the only real export market for Canada's crude is the United States. But the Midwest refineries that are served by existing border-crossing pipelines are expected to reach their maximum capacity for processing the northern oil supply by 2015, according to IHS CERA.
Plans for pipeline
Asian markets loom as a new and promising opportunity for oil sands developers eager to command global prices for the product, but there is no immediate avenue to deliver the crude to Asia. The most likely corridor - the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge - has been ensnared in disputes with environmentalists and indigenous communities worried about damage from oil spills.
Last month Enbridge disclosed it has enough contracts with shippers to fill the pipeline, which would transport crude 731 miles from Alberta to Kitmat, B.C., for tanker transport to Asian markets.
Although Enbridge isn't saying what companies have signed up to use the pipeline, China's Sinopec has confirmed it is helping to finance the $5.5 billion project.
A new avenue to Asian markets also would benefit U.S. oil companies with big Canadian crude reserves, including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell.
If it gets past regulatory hurdles, the pipeline could be completed as early as 2017.
"We want to become a global energy superpower," said Liepert. "And you're not going to become a global superpower of anything with one customer."