The oil sands of Alberta are estimated to hold 174 billion barrels of crude oil, capable of being economically extracted, and are said to be the largest "oil reserves" outside of Saudi Arabia, whose wells hold 262 billion barrels. However, like is not being compared strictly with like in these statistics, since in order to recover the Canadian oil, the oil sands ("tar-sands") must be dug from enormous open pit mines, and the bitumen they actually contain cracked thermally to turn it into oil, rather than simply pumping it from the ground in its natural state as is done in Saudi. Nevertheless, some 1.2 million barrels of oil are recovered from Alberta, daily, which gives some clue as to the scale of the operation there. The oil deposits of Saudi and elsewhere are described as "conventional" while those from tar-sands are listed among the "unconventional" sources of oil, and upon which we will depend increasingly as conventional crude oil supplies decline.
The mine in Alberta covers an area of more than two square miles and is 250 feet deep. The resource lies in an intact ecosystem, which is the boreal forest that covers one third of Canada's land mass. The majority of Canada's oil exports go to the US and the whole enterprise is bringing-in billions of dollars, government tax revenue and well-paid jobs. The Bush administration regards this supply of oil as being a vital component of breaking the US dependency on oil imported from the Middle east. There are however, a number of environmental concerns about the operation overall. The forest is home to hundreds of species of birds, and animals including caribous, wolves and bears. It is also one of the largest holdings of freshwater on Earth.
At Syncrude Canada's Aurora mine, mighty electric shovels scoop-out "earth" 100 tons at a time and load it into lorries which convey their cargo to crushers, from where the dirt is mixed with hot water in huge tanks to the top of which bitumen floats. The bitumen is then cracked and distilled in a full-scale oil refinery to yield the final oil product. The remnants are heaped massively onto the surrounding landscape, with enormous pyramids of sulphur waste and piles of sand, or into tailings ponds the size of lakes.
David Schindler, an ecologist from the University of Alberta, has estimated that in combination with climate change, the tar-sands operations could reduce the flow of the Athabasca River in winter by a half or more. Regulations have been proposed by environmental officials regarding water use, as a means to protect wildlife that depend on the river water, and the federal government has required a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil. The total emission from the tar-sands operations amounted to 4% of that for the whole of Canada in 2005, and seems to be rising. Greg Stringham, who is vice-president of the Canadian Association of Oil Producers, has said that oil sands operators are considering alternative means to natural gas for heating the water, including underground fires or nuclear power. I discussed the latter in a previous posting "Nuclear Powered Oil sands."
Dr John O'Connor, the regional chief of family practice, has stated his concerns over the number of deformed fish found in the locality and also a surprising incidence of rare forms of cancer and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. He said, "It raised the question, were we seeing the result of genetics, lifestyle, bad luck or environmental?" A complaint was filed against him following some remarks he made last year on a radio broadcast, by federal health authorities, alleging that he was unduly alarming the public.
Clearly, this massive "oil" reserve will continue to be exploited, and I anticipate that more such concerns and issues will be raised periodically, but the show will undoubtedly go on.
"Black gold's tarnish seen in Canada," by Tim Reiterman, Los Angeles Times: