BERKELEY – Soaring oil prices and demands for energy security are boosting the attractiveness of low-quality sources of petroleum, such as tar sands and coal, at the risk of causing significant environmental damage and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, according to a new study.

Writing in Environmental Research Letters, an open-access, electronic-only journal debuting this month, University of California, Berkeley, scientists lay out the economic, security and environmental challenges currently standing in the way of exploiting these resources. They strongly warn that, as these challenges are addressed, the environment is likely to get the shaft.

[EB: Article is online at Risks of the oil transition]

“When we face tradeoffs between economics, security and environment, the environment often ends up getting the short end of the stick,” said Alex Farrell, associate professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley. “The scale and irreversibility of the environmental risks, such as climate change and major damage to the Alberta ecosystem to get at tar sands, makes them very important.”

“The real question is: How much of these low-quality resources do we ever want to develop, and how do we do it in a way that manages the economic risks, maximizes the reduction in security risk, and minimizes the environmental risk?” he said.

Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, has already become a boomtown as the land is stripped of vegetation and the tar sands dug up, while in the United States, government and businesses are eyeing the nation’s vast coal deposits as sources of synthetic natural gas. Few of these proposals include environmental protection, noted Farrell and coauthor Adam R. Brandt, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s energy and resources group.

The risks aren’t all environmental, however. Despite doomsday talk of the world soon passing the point of peak oil production, or having already passed that milestone, business is still leery of investing in new technologies to turn abundant but low-quality tar sands, coal and oil shale into fuel.

“Many investors still remember the last synfuel project, which was shut off by the Reagan administration in the 1980s,” Farrell said, referring to the nation’s aborted, multibillion-dollar investment in turning coal and oil shales into synthetic oil and natural gas. “To them, investing in technologies to develop these low-quality resources is too risky.”

And even though politicians tout the increased security benefits of having domestic sources of fuel, this doesn’t translate into decreased risk for investors.

The fact that investors are not jumping into the synthetic fuels field provides an opportunity to limit the environmental risk, Farrell added.

“The sustainable options that we develop – increased fuel efficiency, wind, biofuels – become much more important as we transition from conventional petroleum to unconventional sources,” he said. “The more of these substitutes for dirty oil, and the faster we can develop those, the easier it will be to manage whatever part of that dirty oil we do use.”

The research by Farrell and Brandt was funded by the Climate Decision Making Center, which is supported jointly by the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University, and the Energy Foundation.

Environmental Research Letters (ERL) is a publication of the London-based Institute of Physics, a scientific organization devoted to increasing the understanding and application of physics. Edited by Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and resources and of public policy at UC Berkeley, the journal aims to serve the whole environmental science community, reflecting the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of environmental science.