Posted by: Tony Carson | 23 September, 2007

Tar Sands — Canada’s dirty little secret

Everything about the tar sands is big, most significantly its global warming and environmental implications — leading some to now describe the tar sands as “Canada’s dirty secret.”

Notes from The Tyee article: America’s Claim on Our Tar Sands.

See also: The Harm the Tar Sands Will Do which explains “producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the tar sands releases up to three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil. This is a result of the huge amount of energy (primarily from burning natural gas) required to generate the heat needed to extract bitumen from the tar sands and upgrade it into synthetic crude. The energy equivalent of one barrel of oil is required to produce just three barrels of oil from the tar sands.”

Producing oil from the tar sands is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. Tar sands consist of a mixture of 85 per cent sand, clay and silt; five per cent water; and 10 per cent crude bitumen, the tar-like substance that can be converted to oil. Bitumen doesn’t flow like crude oil, and getting it out of the tar sands is a messy job. The current technology, which has evolved relatively little since it was first developed in the early 20th century, is a hot water-based separation process that requires huge quantities of water and energy. Imagine mixing a bucket of roofing tar into a child’s sandbox. Then boil some water, pour it into the sandbox, and try to wash the tar out of the sand.

Most tar sands production takes place in vast open-pit mines, some as large as 150 square kilometres and as deep as 90 metres. Before strip-mining can begin, the boreal forest must be clear-cut, rivers and streams diverted and wetlands drained. The overburden (the soil, rocks and clay overlying the tar sands deposit) must be stripped away and stockpiled to reach the bitumen. Four tons of material are moved to produce every barrel of bitumen.

At current production rates, with just three mines operating, enough material is moved every two days to fill a 60,000-seat stadium. But only a small fraction of the bitumen deposits is close enough to the surface to be strip-mined. Over 80 per cent of the established tar sands reserves are deeper and must be extracted in situ (in place) by injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.

Once separated from the sand, the bitumen is still a low-grade, heavy fossil fuel that must undergo an energy-intensive process to upgrade it into a synthetic crude oil more like conventional crude, either by adding hydrogen or removing carbon. Upgrading the bitumen usually occurs before it is shipped to refineries, but sometimes raw bitumen is diluted (e.g., with naphtha) and pipelined to a refinery where it is both upgraded and refined. In the United States, about three-quarters of the oil is refined into transportation fuels.

Major global powers are positioning themselves to ensure access to oil from tar sands. To date, four of the five largest publicly traded oil companies in the world (Royal Dutch/Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and TotalFina) have invested or committed themselves to invest billions of dollars in tar sands development. National oil companies have also staked their claim, ranging from Norway’s Statoil to China’s Sinopec.

Tar sands speculation, investment and development have grown dramatically. The oil industry’s production target of one million barrels per day was achieved in 2004, 16 years ahead of the ambitious schedule for growth it laid out in 1995. That year, the industry invested almost $9 billion US in Alberta’s tar sands. More than $100 billion US of investment has been announced for development between 2006 and 2015.

The tar sands industry is now focused on quintupling production as quickly as possible. It is projected that tar sands production will reach three to four million barrels per day by 2015 and could grow to five million barrels per day by 2030, if not sooner. It is the prospect of this growth that has led Prime Minister Stephen Harper to label Canada an “emerging energy superpower.”

The magnitude of the environmental risks and liabilities arising from Canada’s tar sands rush is unprecedented in the history of North American energy production. Growing awareness about the global warming and environmental consequences of relying upon growth in tar sands production throws into sharp relief the perils of our addiction to oil in the 21st century. All North Americans, including future generations, have a stake in the outcome.


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