Heads stuck in the sands

The man that Republicans believe is the best candidate for president their party has to offer says that lifting the federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling would "be very helpful in the short term resolving our energy crisis." This may not be the least intelligent statement to be made in the 2008 campaign to date ;;;; Ed Brayton prefers McCain's demonstration of his lack of understanding of basic legal principles ;;;; but it still boggles the mind.

No one even tangentially familiar with the petroleum industry would dare suggest that the time-frame involved in exploring, reviewing, commissioning and drilling new oil or gas fields bears any resemblance to the "short term." But this is all a red herring. Opposition to offshore drilling among most coastal residents pretty much guarantees that lifting the moratorium isn't in the medium-term either. By focusing attention on whether we should exploit new sources of fossil fuels, we ignore the threat posed by existing projects.

The worst of them are known collectively as the Alberta tar sands. It's part of the second of the three trillion barrels of oil the dinosaurs left for us. The first trillion we've already burned or transformed into consumer polymers, and the third is too difficult to get to. In between are that which we can exploit without going to extremes. Most of what's left of that second trillion lie in "non-conventional" deposits like the tar sands, though, so it's going to get more and more expensive to extract.

People who get paid to take guesses at this sort of thing say there's 179 billion barrels, more or less, in the tar (or oil) sands of northern Alberta that we should be able to squeeze out relatively easy. But only relative to the easy stuff like Saudi oil. The main problem is it takes a lot energy, which, of course, means money and pollution. From a story I wrote a couple of years back:

Turning the mixture of silt, clay, water and bitumen into gasoline or home heating oil requires enormous energy. Companies are experimenting with new technologies, but the only economical option today is steam-cleaning it with a river basin worth of water.

For now, natural gas is the sole practical source of the heat required to turn that water into steam. Every four barrels of oil squeezed from the tar sands requires burning the equivalent of one more barrel in the form of natural gas. [Tar Sands company] SunCor's [Brad] Bellows argues the ratio is closer to 8:1; other business analysts make it closer to 3:1. Regardless, it's a wasteful process, sort of like turning gold into lead, as Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Eric Reguly once put it. Or composting caviar, as northern environmental consultant Petr Cizek suggests.

Since I wrote that, the news from the tar sands has only gotten worse. For example:

EDMONTON - A provincial advisory group has yanked from its website a pair of reports that reveal air pollutants are on the rise in the oil sands region, insisting they should have never been made public.

The Alberta Environment reports on chemical emissions and air quality show that peak concentrations of the toxic gas hydrogen sulphide in areas around the massive plants had jumped by 30 to 175 per cent since 1999, bucking a downward trend elsewhere the province. (Edmonton Journal, June 4, 2008)


CALGARY - About two thirds of new refining capacity in the United States will process "dirty" crude oil from Alberta, environmental groups said Wednesday, as they sought to raise awareness about the ecological consequences of unrestrained oil sands development.


"And all this is going to accelerate as refiners place their bets on what seems to be a very big shift away from conventional crude to Canadian tar sands," EIP director Eric Shaeffer told reporters.

"It's really hard for me to imagine what else the U.S. oil industry could do to go backwards further and faster than to rely on Canadian tar sands or similar resources in the United States." (Canadian Press, June 4, 2008)


Recently, 500 ducks mistook a lake of toxic tar sands waste in Alberta for one of the many pristine waters in Canada's Boreal forests. Once coated with the oily residue, the ducks couldn't fly away and they all died. Many had flown from the United States on their way to have their young in the Boreal. The deceptive waters of the enormous waste lagoons were likely too attractive for them on their long trek north. (NRDC press release, June 17)

Put it all together and you get an environmental nightmare. It's simply not possible to exploit the tar sands and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plus you create one of the largest and ugliest industrial facilities on Earth. Yet the tar sands is on track to become the largest single fossil-fuel extraction operation in the world. Canada's economy indicators, not to mention Alberta's, is now hopelessly tied to the tar sands. So the chances of shutting it down any time soon are practically nil.

And yet, unless we do shut it down, along with all the coal-fired plants ;;;; on the planet ;;;; within the next three decades, there's really no point in buying hybrids and compact fluorescents and eschewing plastic drinking bottles.

So yes, let's condemn John McCain for making yet another inane suggestion, but let's not forget the big picture. It's going to take measures like a ban on all imports of tar sands products to turn around this ship of state. Everything else is just rearranging the deck chairs.


More like this

One of Canada's best journalists, Andrew Nikiforuk, is the author of a just-released report on Canada's tar sands from Greenpeace. "Dirty Oil: How the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis" is not a peer-reviewed paper, it was commissioned by environmental activists, and it relies heavily…
It's a surprisingly complicated question. There are few reliable sources of data on just how much energy and resources are involved in extracting petroleum from the bitumen-laden sands of northern Alberta. But the inertia that comes with the tens of billions of dollars that have been invested in…
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But there is something that would be very helpful in the very short term. Put the 55 MPH signs back up on the nation's highways. Not only will it save huge amounts of gas, it will save lives. And this isn't guesswork. We've done this experiment before. It will save more than, for example, ANWR could give us per unit time, and there's no reason not to do it indefinitely, whereas ANWR would eventually run out.

Don't wait. It's legal to drive 55 MPH on the highways today. And, it's convenient. At that speed, you can set your cruise control, and let everyone else deal with you. You never have to disengage, because you never have to change lanes to pass anyone. You have the right of way at all times. I don't use smiley thingys, so i'll just say right now: i'm serious.

I think it was a letter to the editor that stated we should get the 1 trillion barrels of oil that are in the shale of Colorado.

I cannot even estimate the environmental degradation that would happen were we to do so. It would be THAT bad.

The oil shale will stay where it is unless you can somehow increase the Colorado river flow by 50%. Or decrease the water use by a good part of Arizona, Las Vegas and parts of SoCal by the same amount.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink

I agree that sticking to 55 MPH is a great way to cut gas consumption. But don't try doing it in the 'overtaking lane' because all that will do is make the lead-foots pass on the right, and there's already way too much of that nonsense going on. IMHO passing on the right should get you a ticket and points just like speeding.