Patrick Moore, the former Greenpeace member and co-founder, was quick to write a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star following a column I wrote in which I argued that more attention needs to be paid to the potential of geothermal heat and power in the oil sands, particularly before we head down a path that includes nuclear. Now, we all know Moore is a nuclear convert who spends most of his time promoting the technology as a solution to global warming. While I don’t always agree with his point of view, I certainly respect his belief — and the reasoning behind it — that only widespread acceptance of nuclear, where no large-scale “clean” alternatives exist, can help us manage climate change. But by jumping so quickly to dismiss my column and the potential of geothermal, I question whether he truly is a nuclear gun for hire who attacks any suggestion of a reasonable alternative.
In his letter, he writes “we know that nuclear energy can deliver clean, safe and affordable energy to Alberta’s oil sands,” using “we” as if this claim is accepted without question by the general public. He goes on to write that “the harnessing of deep geothermal energy from the Earth’s molten core has yet to be proven effective on a large scale at the depths that would be required in Alberta.”
The thing is, you don’t need unproven depths to tap heat in the oil sands. Those studying geothermal as an option are looking at depths of between 2 and 5 kilometres, which is quite common in the area. The reason greater depths are not needed is because geothermal in the context of oil sands production isn’t necessarily for power generation, which requires high temperatures. It’s the heat they need, and only between 80 C and 100 C. Mind you, if they wanted to they could drill deeper to build centralized geothermal power plants, and there again this is not unproven — it’s happening everywhere around the world and at an accelerated pace. And nobody knows better than the oil industry, which continues to drill wells at record depths as part of everyday oil exploration.
The fact is, oil sands companies are seriously considering geothermal, because they know how expensive nuclear can be and how long it can take to build it. MIT, in a recent study, concluded that geothermal facilities could be up and providing clean power much more quickly than nuclear. If the oil sands companies are taking a hard looking, who is Moore to suggest they simply abandon reason and go directly to nuclear?
All I argued in my column is that geothermal be part of the discussion before jumping blindfolded into nuclear. He seems to want to stifle that discussion.
This is where I think Moore has lost credibility. If he was a true environmentalist, he would be someone who is open to different options where alternatives make sense. By so quickly dismissing geothermal as something that should be part of the oil sands debate, even as the oil companies themselves explore the option, he exposes himself for what he appears to be: a nuclear pitchman riding on a fading reputation as an environmentalist.