Burning natural gas to extract and process oil from the Canadian tar sands has been likened by one industry insider to burning Picassos for heat. But the bidding at the “Picassos for heat” auction may go even higher as those involved in tar sands and oil shale development push for nuclear power to fuel their projects.

Guernica - Picasso (1937)
Guernica – Picasso (1937)

It is a truism that one ought to match the tool to the task. Energy is a tool, and we try to match the proper type of energy to the task. No one would try to put coal into an automobile gas tank. Even if it would actually burn in the engine, coal is so bulky one would have to pull a large trailer filled with it behind the car–in the manner of an old steam locomotive–to make a long trip without refueling. In our homes we use electricity for most tasks instead of gasoline-powered engines because electricity is so versatile. It can be used to power vastly different appliances. We also prefer electricity because, at least inside our homes, it gives off no fumes.

Perhaps some will remember the all-electric home, an idea out of the 1950s that now finds its place in museums instead of new construction. That’s partly because it is wildly inefficient to burn fossil fuels to make electricity and then convert that electricity back to heat. About two-thirds of the energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat when they are turned into electricity. It is a law of physics that each transformation from one state of energy to another involves loss. We are therefore advised to match carefully each task to the type of energy required.

Yet, this basic lesson in physics and energy efficiency seems lost on those pursuing the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands and the oil shale fields of the United States. This is in part because so much of our current infrastructure is dependent on liquid fuels from petroleum. In the United States petroleum accounts for 94 percent of all transportation fuel. That includes cars, motorcycles, trucks, busses, ships and planes. Some 8.1 million homes use heating oil for space heat. Changing these two components of the infrastructure to run on other fuels would be costly and time-consuming.

And yet, this might be worth doing to avoid the folly of using high-quality energy sources to produce lower-quality ones from extremely dirty sources. To see how dirty, one need only take a trip using Google Earth to the section of Alberta where tar sands are being exploited to view the huge wastewater ponds–ponds that can be seen from space–filled with sludge which the industry has yet to figure out how to purify. Extracting and processing tar sands also produces two to three times as much greenhouse gas as extracting and refining of conventional crude oil. Then there is the question of burning huge amounts of natural gas to heat the water used to separate the gooey bitumen from the sand. In addition, hydrogen is stripped from natural gas and used to upgrade the bitumen into something that can be sent to a conventional refinery.

Since natural gas is now in decline in Canada, plans are afoot to build nuclear power plants to provide process energy for tar sands operations and possibly to produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of water. Oil shale developers are faced with the same challenges. They need heat, and for some extraction processes they need hydrogen. Either they will use natural gas which appears to have peaked in North America–the hype about shale gas notwithstanding–or they will use nuclear power.

The question then is this: Why not use these high-quality energy sources to power transportation and heat homes directly? Doing so would produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And, direct use of these energy sources would be far more efficient than using them to transform tar sands and oil shale into useable petroleum products. The response from the oil industry has always been that we’d need a different infrastructure. But the answer to this objection is as follows: Why not build that infrastructure now? Why wait until the oil flow tops out at the tar sands and oil shale fields to do this? Why accept the many risks and uncertainties associated with further development of these unconventional oil sources including the risk that oil shale may never prove to be economically feasible to exploit?

My recommended path would be to electrify transportation as much as possible. Obviously, planes would have to be an exception. Ships might also be an exception; but oceangoing ships could reduce their fuel consumption greatly by adding sails which are increasingly becoming available. Cars, motorcycles, trucks and trains, however, could all be electrified with a few exceptions such as emergency vehicles which must run whether electricity is available or not.

We can generate electricity from many sources including renewables such as wind and solar. And, the future supply crunch which we are likely to experience in oil could be averted. In fact, oil could be saved for critical nonfuel uses such as pharmaceuticals, plastics, fabrics, lubricants and myriad other products upon which our society now depends.

Given the singular versatility of oil as a feedstock for so many types of materials in modern society, it might even be appropriate to add burning oil for fuel to the list of actions that are the equivalent of burning Picassos for heat. That might turn out to be the best art lesson of all.