Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Dirty" Oil: the Tar Sands of Alberta pt. 1

Canada's greatest buried energy treasure [can] satisfy the world's demand for petroleum for the next century.
- Time Magazine

The Canadian tar sands industry is centered in Alberta, Canada, and more than one million barrels of synthetic oil are produced from these resources per day; a number set to triple by 2020. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada's oil production, and output is expanding rapidly. Approximately 75% of Canada's oil and oil products are exported to the US, making it difficult for both countries to cut their carbon emissions.

What are they, you ask?

Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a heavy black oil with the consistency of peanut butter). The sand is mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, then refined into oil. Extracting oil from tar sands is more complex than conventional oil recovery; usually using strip mining or open pit techniques. Once taken out of the ground, separation systems remove the bitumen from the clay, sand, and water that make up the tar sands. Due to its thick and heavy nature, bitumen also needs additional upgrading before it can be refined, and is diluted with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines.

After mining, the tar sands are transported to an extraction plant, where a hot water process separates the bitumen from sand, water, and minerals. In this process hot water is added to the sand, and the resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant. Tiny air bubbles attach to the bitumen released from the oil sand, and floats to the top of the separation vessel, where the bitumen can be skimmed off. Further processing removes residual water and solids. The bitumen is then transported and eventually upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

When we are looking at the tar sands, we are looking at a project that is the largest capital investment project on the face of the planet, the largest industrial project on the planet, and the ecological implications are just as great.
- Mike Hudema, an Edmonton-based campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

This is the money - it even smells like money.
-Todd Dahlman, manager of Shell's Muskeg River oil sands mine in the Athabasca region of North Alberta in Canada.

There are 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves here, and at about $131/barrel (as of Feb 2009), that's a lot of incentive to dig. Canada's reserves in Alberta are second only to Saudi Arabia’s 260 billion. The estimate of how many more barrels of oil are buried deeper underground is staggering.

We know there’s much, much more there. The total estimates could be two trillion or even higher. This is a very big resource.
-Clive Mather, Shell's Canada chief.

Environmental Disaster:

The bitumen in tar sands is a low-quality, high-cost alternative to oil and, so far, there have been inadequate environmental safeguards or monitoring of extraction and processing for export to the U.S.

To get the oil out of the ground, trees are cut down, the surface layer is strip-mined, and the underlying mixture is heated with steam in order to make it flow. Two tons of earth and sand are dug out to yield just one barrel of bitumen; that one barrel generates three times as much greenhouse gas (GHG) emission as excavating one barrel of conventional oil.

On average, 500-1000 cubic feet of natural gas is needed to produce a single barrel of crude oil and three to five barrels of fresh water are drawn from the Athabascan river system to process each barrel of bitumen. The water level of the Athabasca River has severely depleted and the fish have been poisoned.

The water leftover from the extraction process, known as tailings, contains arsenic, mercury, napthenic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Most of this water is stored in vast, above-ground contaminated tailings ponds, which leak toxins into the surrounding area. Much of the water is reused, but the industry is producing 1.8m litres of tailings a day which need to be contained in large earthen dams. As of last year, tailings covered over 130 sq km.

To give an idea of the danger, last spring, about 500 ducks alighted on a tailings pond during their yearly migration. Once landing on the water, they were soon entrapped by the slick oil on the surface and drowned in the toxic cocktail.

Should one of the dams fail and release its content of poisonous water, the results will be disastrous. Downstream residents in Fort Chipewyan can no longer safely eat fish from the river because they make them sick. The people themselves have high rates of birth defects and cancers, some in rare forms.

Compounding the health hazard are the massive amounts of nitrogen oxides, sulpher dioxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter are being released into the air through the processing process. The tar sands mining procedure releases at least three times the CO2 emissions as regular oil production and is slated to become the single largest industrial contributor in North America to Climate Change.

It is estimated that by 2011, annual greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands plants alone will be over 80 million tones of CO2 equivalent - a greater quantity of emissions than that produced by all of Canada's passenger cars today.

The oil sands are single-handedly preventing Canada from meeting any of its Kyoto obligations.
-Mike Hudema, an Edmonton-based climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

Under the UN climate agreement, Canada was to have reduced its emissions to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020. The federal government has said it will not even attempt to meet those targets.

The tar sands are already the cause of the second fastest rate of deforestation on the planet behind the Amazon Rainforest Basin. The the Pembina Institute says 420sq km of forest has been 'disturbed' so far. Meanwhile, 2,000sq km of forest is predicted to have been affected. There’s no certainty about reclaiming these thousands of hectares of boreal forest and wetlands ripped up to yield bitumen and, to date, little reclamation has been accomplished.

In short: exploiting the tar sands goes farther than simply using up water, electricity, coal and natural gas. The air is polluted with nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, water is contaminated with toxic chemicals, and millions of hectares of wilderness are being destroyed.

Can’t argue with it. I mean, there’s no question that they’ve got a mess up there.
-T. Boone Pickens, legendary Texas oil tycoon
Pt. 2 on social repercussions once I get organized

Check out my sources, and feel free to use the comments box.

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