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April 05, 2006

Sand castles

By: Silvio

Hey, did you know that Canada is the third country in oil global reserves rankings?

At least, this is what the prestigious World Street Journal a couple of weeks ago wrote: and it sounds true, since in the Athabasca Tar Sands there should be no less than 1,7 TRILLIONS barrels of oil, of which 174 billion barrels have been included in the World Proven Reserves since 2003 (that's a lot of oil, just think that the biggest field in the world, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, contained around 80 billions barrels when it was discovered).

Great, no Peak Oil in sight thanks to the abundant Canuck oil!
As usual, thou, we'd like to know a bit better about this stuff...

"Tar Sands" are a combination of sand, clay, water and bitumen: and this last thing is what companies look for, as it can be refined to produce synthetic oil. So, actually there are a few differences between conventional oil and this new, huge amount of "proven" oil: before it can be used it has to be extracted and then it has to be upgraded to synthetic oil.

It could be interesting, now, to understand better how these operations will affect the environment and how much energy will be needed to obtain the final product, our (synthetic, but still...) black gold.
In a word, is it worth it?

First of all, let's see an estimate of how much oil we will be getting from this source: the CIBC January report on the oil sands of Canada (PDF)
tells us that in the next 10 years new Canadian oil sands projects will bring 2,6 millions barrels of new oil per day, more or less half of which will need mining and the other half in situ production.
Now that we have a few numbers, let's study the thing a bit better.

There are basically two ways of extracting bitumen from tar sands: mining and recovery by in situ techniques.

Mining means that you open (very, very, very) large holes in the ground to reach the deposits that are below the more or less thick layer of ground: once you get the tar sand out, you need to carry it to a facility that uses solvents, detergents, heat and centrifuges to extract bitumen - the heat usually comes from local stranded natural gas.
So, in order to obtain bitumen using this technique you:
- seriously harm the environment (you totally destroy the forest, the bogs, the rivers as well as the natural landscape that was unfortunate enough to sit on top of your tar sands. Some estimates suggest that by the year 2023 the impacted area may be potentially exceeding 1,406 square kilometers. That's bigger than the total area of Los Angeles.)
- you get a huge amount of tailings, that is, processed ore plus water and all the additives needed (solvents and detergents). Again from the Oil Sands FAQs, "the amount of land required to dispose of oil sands tailings far exceeds that of any other form of mineral processing". Ugh.
- you use a lot of energy since you need heat and power to run the centrifuges (what if you don't have a local source of gas? And what when the one you have will finish? And then remember that gas is probably the cleanest hydrocarbon in the world, so using it to obtain oil is like burning diamonds to obtain coal...)

Using in situ techniques is probably even worse (please note that it is estimated that about 80% of the new oil sands will have to be extracted this way): from the Oil Sands Discovery Centre (a P.R. site sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum):

Using drilling technology, steam is injected into the deposit to heat the oil sand lowering the viscosity of the bitumen. The hot bitumen migrates towards producing wells, bringing it to the surface, while the sand is left in place. [...] In situ technology is expensive and requires certain conditions like a nearby water source.
And if they say it's energy "intensive" (read: probably with a negative EROEI - that is, you invest more energy than what you get), we'll sure believe them!

And this is just about extraction: once you have this freaking bitumen, you have to produce oil out of it. Actually, first of all you have to send it to a refinery, and since bitumen is quite thicker than oil, it must be mixed with lighter oil or chemically split before it can even be put in a pipeline.

Once it gets to the refinery, it needs to be upgraded: and here we need again a lot of gas. Bitumen is low in hydrogen, so it's not suitable for any refinery: condensates from the same local stranded natural gas are available to add to the bitumen to increase the hydrogen content. The result is called synthetic oil and it is a suitable feedstock for oil refineries. The big problem with this, thou, is that the whole process is really energy intensive (there is who claims that extracting oil from sands requires more energy than what it produces - while other ones, more "optimistically", talk about a 1.5 EROEI - that is, tar sands produce 3 barrels of oil for every 2 consumed).

And we shouldn't forget about greenhouse gases emissions: for the production of every barrel of oil from tar sands we get 80 Kg of emissions in the atmosphere, and the problem is so huge that Canada has already violated the Kyoto protocol it signed (Canada agreed to reduce, by 2012, its greenhouse gas emissions by 6% with respect to the reference year (1990). In 2002, Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 24% since 1990). So go figure what will happen when we'll start mining and boiling all the tar sands that we are talking about!

In the end, let's see how tar sands projects will affect our life - and our planet.

These new 174 billion barrels (that's 6 years and a half more of oil), produced at 2 millions barrel per day, will cost us:

  • the total (and we really mean total) destruction of a piece of land bigger than Los Angeles
  • the production of billions and billions of tonnes of toxic tailings
  • the emission of 60 megatonnes of greenhouse gases per year
  • the consumption of 2 billions cubic feet of natural gas per day (that's enough to heat all Canadians homes every day)
BUT we will be riding on fine Canuck oil. And screw you, stupid Peak Oiler!

Posted by Silvio at April 5, 2006 08:51 AM Category: Peak Oil


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