Image: sbamueller via flickr
A report by the Canadian government warns that Canada and the U.S. will both shift toward heavier forms of crude oil as global sources of lighter crude become scarcer. The biggest problem with that shift is one the report also recognizes: "Generally, heavier forms of crude oil, such as that contained in the oil sands, require more energy and resources to produce and refine, compared to lighter crude oil, resulting in higher air pollutant and GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions."
For those new to the oil sands topic: it's detrimental for the environment and produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional oil. It causes tremendous amounts of toxic water pollution, and threatens wildlife.
It's said to be a financial disaster, and Canada's oil sands program has sparked controversy for the U.S. government and specifically Hillary Clinton, who has been defending plans for a pipeline that will bring the dirty oil to the U.S.
Canada's The Tyee has the story on this most recent report:
Alberta is now producing 1.5 million barrels of oil sands production each day, which is forecast to rise to 3.8 million barrels a day by 2020. The oil sands is "the only one in North America, currently capable of making large scale contributions to our energy security," said the authors.
The industrial challenge is to separate the valuable bitumen crude oil from the sands and clay. For oil sands that are too deep for surface mining operations, some form of "in-situ" is needed to extract the oil. Most in-situ operations involve the injection of steam into the oil sands deep underground.
There are some key differences between surface mining and in-situ operations, although precise percentages of the total each will produce is unclear, as is the time it will take for mined areas to recover:
Some sources say 20 per cent of this area will be mined versus 80 per cent being developed in situ. (The Alberta government disagrees, telling The Tyee the number is more like 2.5 per cent mining and 97.5 per cent in situ.) Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, "In the oil sands, in-situ operations are generally more GHG intensive [than mining... Upgraders also contribute to GHG emissions through the hydrogen production process."
"While the industry has historically made significant reductions in GHG emissions intensity of crude oil production, falling 39 per cent from 1990 to 2008, absolute GHG emissions from the oil sands industry will likely continue to rise -- due to anticipated production increases."
"Due to the long time frames (e.g. 40-60 plus years) and massive scale of oil sands mining projects, reclamation of disturbed land does not happen quickly." The province of Alberta demands that companies remediate and reclaim land after the oil sands have been extracted. To date, 67 square kilometres is under active reclamation and one square kilometre has been certified as reclaimed.
For more, check out the report itself [PDF], which The Tyee, after filing Canada's version of a FOIA request, made available online.
More on tar sands
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First US Tar Sands Project Approved in Utah
Tar Sand Investments Could Be Oil Industry's Version of the Sub-Prime Meltdown
Economic, Environmental Costs of Developing Tar Sands & Oil Shale 'Unthinkable'