“We have to show leadership in protecting our environment so that we have a future for our children and grandchildren.”
Oh, how we love oil. Everything changed with the Industrial Revolution, but early on the fossil fuel we used to harness energy was coal. But in the 19th century, oil was discovered and everything changed. Petroleum products burn cleaner than coal, although not as clean as natural gas does. But since fossil fuels contain carbon, their combustion contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately global warming and climate change.
But oil equals energy. That’s why everyone wants it. That’s why wars are fought in regions of the world where oil is plentiful—so we don’t lose our easy access to it. And that’s also why as those deposits pass their peak, more challenging deposits are sought. These include offshore oil drilling and tar sands (often referred to as oil sands because for some reason that sounds more palatable). Interestingly, we have alternative sources of energy for every way we that use oil other than as fuel for airplanes. Those alternatives may cost more (the main reason we haven’t readily switched), but they’re available.
The tar sands are more properly referred to as bituminous sands. Bitumen is a thick tarry substance with the same visocisity as cold molasses. It’s so thick that it won’t even flow unless it’s heated or diluted. The largest source in the world—about 13 percent—sits under the boreal forest in northern Alberta and is now being extensively mined. There are other large sources in Kazakhstan and Russia, but Alberta’s is the most commercially developed. That territory covers an area larger than England, although only about ten percent of it is estimated to be economically recoverable with today’s oil prices. When the cost of a barrel of oil rises as oil deposits dry up elsewhere, that percentage will likely increase.
As an unconventional source of petroleum, the tar sands require unconventional methods to extract the bitumen compared with conventional crude oil deposits in Texas or the Middle East. There all they have to do is drill into natural reservoirs and let the natural pressures below bring it to the surface. Sometimes, water flooding and gas injection are techniques that are also used, especially towards the end of a reservoir’s supply.
As only about ten percent of Alberta’s tar sands can be accessed with open-pit mining, most is extracted through surface mining. The tar sand deposits are usually about forty to sixty metres deep, sandwiched between peat, sand and clay above it, and limestone below it. The most common way to get at it is with shovels and trucks. These are the largest power shovels and dump trucks used anywhere in the world. The production costs are about $27 per barrel, and about two tons of tar sands produce one barrel. By 2020, it’s expected that Alberta will produce about 3.5 million barrels a day.
The tar sands are then processed by adding hot water and sodium bicarbonate and agitating the whole mixture. The bitumen rises to the top and is skimmed off. Modern techniques allow about 90 percent of the bitumen to be extracted this way.
The high viscosity of the crude oil won’t allow it to flow through normal pipelines at normal temperatures, so it requires some processing and refining. The processing or upgrading process purifies it and puts it through some chemical reactions, all of which require a lot of water and energy. The amount of carbon dioxide generated in this process is substantial.
The costs to the environment are also significant. Obviously the boreal forests where the deposits are located along with their ecosytstems are destroyed. A number of heavy metals found naturally in the deposits also become concentrated because once the crude oil is extracted, the rest is returned back to the mine.
Estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of the tar sands range anywhere from about five to twenty percent more than the emissions associated with conventional drilling in oil reservoirs. Environment Canada states that five percent of Canada’s emissions come directly from the tar sands, what works out to be about 0.1 percent of the global amount, and this is anticipated to rise to eight percent by 2015. And of course, once the end product is used, even further emissions rise. It’s for these reasons that the tar sands are considered the dirtiest oil on the planet, and why so many environmental groups all over the world are opposed to their development. If Alberta was its own country, it would have the largest per capita emissions in the world.
But it’s difficult to simply shut the tar sands down for any government, no matter what political party is forming that government. Tar sands help the economy by creating jobs and offering a natural resource that is wanted all over the world. Until international agreements are made that will help this situation, I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
The best way to view it is like this: oil is the drug, the world is the junkie, and Canada is the dealer. You can’t just penalize the dealers because junkies will get their fix somewhere else. You need to offer alternatives to the drug and help the addicts.
Maybe we need a methadone clinic-equivalent for everyone addicted to the oil industry. And that means almost everybody.