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America's Claim on Our Tar Sands

Must Alberta feed the US oil addiction?

By Dan Woynillowicz 21 Sep 2007 | World Watch/AlterNet.org

Dan Woynillowicz is a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute, based in Calgary, Alberta.

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President Bush: admitted addict.

[This is the second of two parts. The first, on the environmental impact of the tar sands project, ran yesterday in The Tyee.]

It's well known that the United States consumes more oil per capita than any other country in the world, absorbing two-thirds of global oil production. This heavy dependence has often, and aptly, been described as an addiction; even U.S. President George W. Bush trotted out the metaphor in his 2006 State of the Union address ("America is addicted to oil").

Most of us regard addictions (to anything) as inherently unhealthy and admission of the problem as the first step toward getting clean. In this case, however, U.S. policy has simply been to seek increased oil imports from more reliable sources closer to home, in effect, to replace distant and unstable dealers with one from the neighbourhood -- specifically, Canada, already the kingpin dealer of oil to the United States. In 2005, Canada exported almost 1.5 million barrels per day to the United States, about seven per cent of U.S. daily consumption. Canada exports 66 per cent of its domestic crude oil production, and since 1995, the United States has received 99 per cent of these exports. At first glance, it would seem that Canada wouldn't be able to boost oil production to fill the gap; production of conventional light and heavy oil in Canada was predicted to peak in 2006 and then rapidly decline. But that's where Canada's "unconventional" tar sands come in.

Production of 'black gold'

The vast bulk of Canada's tar sands is found in the province of Alberta. The tar sands deposits underlie more than 140,000 square kilometres of relatively pristine boreal forest, an area larger than the state of Florida. It's estimated that the tar sands hold approximately 1.7 trillion barrels of crude bitumen (the technical term for the fossil fuel extracted from the tar sands). But most of this bitumen will never be recovered and only a fraction, 174 billion barrels, is estimated to be recoverable with today's technology and under current and anticipated economic conditions.

When the U.S. Department of Energy formally acknowledged these reserves in 2003, it vaulted Canada's oil reserves from 21st to second in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. It's little wonder then that the U.S. Energy Policy Development Group has described the tar sands as "a pillar of sustained North American energy and economic security." Canada's so-called "black gold" has come to be regarded as an abundant, secure and affordable source of crude oil. But development of this unconventional fossil fuel comes with unconventional risks and consequences. 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."

Bottom of barrel

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.

But even then, not just any refinery will do. A certain amount of reconfiguring must occur at refineries more accustomed to handling conventional crude oil. Some American refineries, primarily in the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain region, already accept some synthetic crude oil from the tar sands. But with growing reliance on this source of oil, numerous American refineries are converting or expanding in order to handle tar sands-derived synthetic crude oil or raw bitumen.

The coming tar sands rush

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.

Conservation is the answer

To address the impacts of tar sands production, a novel suite of government policies and innovative technologies must be deployed that drastically reduce the environmental impacts by achieving "carbon neutral" (no net greenhouse gas pollution) production, ensuring that development doesn't proceed any faster than reclamation of the boreal forest and reducing dependence on scarce freshwater resources.

The most immediate opportunity to begin our rehabilitation lies in the more efficient use of transportation fuels. To do so requires tackling another sacred cow: the flagging North American auto industry, which is in trouble partly because it is producing the wrong vehicles for the times. The abysmal fuel-efficiency of North America's SUVs, trucks and cars has actually declined since 1986.

The governments of the United States and Canada must collectively commit to implementing regulations that will make North America a global leader in fuel efficiency. By deploying more efficient technologies today, we can begin to ease the demand for transportation fuels and slow the headlong rush into extracting oil from the tar sands. This will afford policymakers and the private sector the time needed to drive investment toward low-carbon and no-carbon fuels, and to evolve our transportation systems and urban design into a state that is compatible with a carbon-free future. North America stands at a critical juncture in its transportation fuel future.

As conventional oil sources disappear, we face a stark choice: we can develop new, even dirtier sources of transportation fuels derived from fossil fuels like the tar sands, or we can set a course for a more sustainable energy future by improving the efficiency of our oil consumption while aggressively transitioning to clean and renewable transportation fuels and sustainable transportation systems.

The environmental and global warming consequences of even one million barrels per day of tar sands production must serve as a wake-up call, and we must acknowledge that increased reliance upon this unconventional, high-impact fossil fuel is not a viable path forward.

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