You might not know this, but Canada has oil reserves of 170 billion barrels, more than Iran and Nigeria combined. This fact is not widely known since much of that oil has been considered “not economically recoverable,”lying deep underground in a mixture of bitumen, a thick, tarry substance, sand and water known as oil sands or tar sands. Development of these tar sands, located near the Athabasca River, by Suncor Energy, began in the 1960s but has been conducted at a relatively small scale because of the costs involved. Only recently, with declining supplies and increasing prices have attempts begun to try and ramp up production, especially after PetroChina acquired a 60 percent interest in two major wells in Alberta in 2009. This was followed in 2010 by Sinopec paying $4.65 billion for a 9 percent stake in Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Chinese investors find this resource to be attractive, since Canada is considered to be a low political risk when compared with, say, the Middle East. As of 2010, the three biggest of many players were Syncrude Canada, Suncor, and Albian Sands, a joint venture of Chevron, Shell Canada and Marathon Oil. BP also has a substantial stake, with a 75 percent interest in Terre de Grace, which it also operates.
Projections made after slowdowns in offshore production show that as much as 36 percent of American oil could be coming from Canadian oil sands by 2030. According to oil expert Daniel Yergin, “Canadian oil sands…have gone from being a fringe energy source to being one of strategic importance.’’
Sounds good so far, but not so fast; there are numerous major environmental problems and risks associated with this technology.
For starters, extracting this oil requires a good deal more energy than conventional drilling, which means more greenhouse gases before the oil even reaches the pump. The net energy return on energy invested ratio of tar sands oil by the time it is converted to gasoline is roughly half that of the equivalent process for conventional crude oil. It is the largest source of carbon emissions in Canada, making Alberta, with only 10 percent of the population, the highest emitting province.
The Canadian government has invested heavily in the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for the tar sands recovery process, but this technology is yet unproven. The process requires also vast amounts of water and chemicals to wash the sands. Anywhere from 2 to 4.5 times the amount of water is required for each barrel of oil produced. The discharge that accumulates in highly toxic waste ponds pose a huge threat to wildlife. In one incident, a flock of 1,600 ducks mistakenly landed in one of these ponds and they all died. Now, propane cannons, using even more energy, are used to frighten away wildlife. Tailing pools now cover 50 square miles adjoining the Athabasca River, in the middle of the world’s largest intact forest, a key absorber of CO2 and wildlife habitat. The projects have also been a mixed blessing for the numerous First Nations people living in the area. While it has brought a significant number of jobs and economic activity, the developers not only pollute the area, but they don’t take First Nations’ interests into account, destroying hunting and fishing, habitat and bringing a number of health risks to the region.
Recently, a number of environmental groups and 23 First Nations groups have asked for a moratorium on new tar sands development. They are also asking to halt the Keystone XL pipeline which would strongly encourage further development of the Tar Sands, by allowing the oil to be shipped from Texas to China, where most of it will be used.
In summary, tar sands oil has a cost/benefit profile that is similar in many ways to coal, except that coal is used for electricity while oil is used for transportation. At the present, there are probably more alternatives for electricity than there are for transportation. This could begin to shift if we see tractor-trailers trucks being converted to natural gas, as T. Boone Pickens predicts. Of course, the current historically low natural gas prices, combined with high oil prices has, at least for the moment, rearranged the whole energy picture.
The similarities between tar sands oil and coal are the large supply on the one hand and the massive environmental problems on the other. I would have to say that, as bad as the environmental impacts of coal are, these tar sands might even be worse, despite what the developers might say. There is no question that the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will encourage expansion of this resource, while bringing questionable benefits to the US, since most of the oil will be shipped to China. Mostly though, I think the whole conversation is really about price and Americans’ desire to live in a world where gas is cheap and no one bothers them to worry about global warming. That world may have existed in the 1950s and 60s, but it certainly doesn’t exist anymore.
[Image credit: 4Blue Eyes Pete Williamson: Flickr Creative Commons]