Faced with the inevitable exhaustion of our major oil deposits, researchers are looking into alternative sources of hydrocarbons. One of the main solutions is also one of the most damaging to the environment: “non-conventional oil.” This term encompasses Venezuela’s extra-heavy oil deposits and Canada’s bituminous oil sands, where hydrocarbons are mixed with other residues. Extracting them is a complex process the which creates pollution. One ton of oil sand produces only 26 gallons (100 liters) of oil.
Worldwide reserves of non-conventional oil are enormous—roughly—4 billion barrels, more than all known reserves of conventional crude oil. But the pollution they generate is also enormous. Canada is paying a high environmental price for extracting its vast deposits: forests cleared, soil destroyed, toxic waste products released, and water supplies contaminated. In Estonia, one of the few countries that uses oil sand bitumen to produce electricity, a study calculated that the energy sector was responsible for 97% of air pollution, 86% of waste products, and 23% of water pollution in 2002, not to mention huge greenhouse gas emissions. Oil sands are therefore not a real solution.
Rather than searching for ways to consume even more energy, we should be thinking about saving it. The American expert Amory Lovins introduced the concept of “negawatt,” a unit of saved rather than expended energy. Today, different energy-saving systems use this as a unit of calculation. However, they are battling against uninterrupted growth in consumption—a growth that mirrors the economy and is measured in GDP. Simply improving energy efficiency will not be enough if we continue to increase the amount of energy we consume. For example, the benefits of a car that is twice as efficient are cancelled out if it is used twice as often or if twice as many are produced.