Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Oil Sands show their Dark Side.

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.

Related Reading.
"Black gold's tarnish seen in Canada," by Tim Reiterman, Los Angeles Times:


Anonymous said...

Before you scoff at Leon Neihouse's ambitious plans, here are his credentials:

"... I am 68 years old and my work history includes a seven year tour of duty in the U.S. Navy during which time I qualified as Chief Engineer of a nuclear powered submarine, seven years in commercial nuclear power during which time I was the Site Manager for Combustion Engineering
during the final stages of the startup of Maine Yankee Atomic Power Plant, and 30 years in the shipbuilding industry for a Naval Architect and Marine Engineering firm in Bath, Maine..."

Leon Neihouse advocates: ".. a network of solar power satellites in geostationary earth orbit would provide the world with safe, environmentally benign, perpetual, and cost effective energy.."
"..a method exists to extract power from the motion of the ocean in a manner that will shake the energy industry to its very foundations. A wind-wave device can be developed to access the vast potential of the ocean. Placing farms of these wind-wave converters in the 40 to 50 degree open ocean Southern Latitude band that sailors refer to as the "roaring forties" will make this regenerative source available to all nations on an open and equitable basis.."
He further advocates using this energy to produce methanol to replace oil.
The complete picture is here:
and, wait for it,
Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy by George A. Olah, Alain Goeppert, and G. K. Surya Prakash:

Interview with Nobel Prize winner Olah:,296,p1.html

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

He sounds like a serious guy! Do you think we could get this up and running within the 5 - 10 years that we need to before oil begins to run short?

I know George Olah slightly (and certainly by reputation) from my days as an academic research chemist!

I think we have two choices: (1) going back to a kind of agrarian society, as I think we will eventually; (2) coming-up with some huge reserve of energy based on renewables... but here lies the rub! Can we get it together in time. It's a shame we didn't start 30 years ago, when OPEC artificially hiked-up the price of oil.

With my usual best regards! Chris.