Canada's tar sands conundrum

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 on other non-peer-reviewed reports by non-objective organizations. Despite all that, it's still a solid, reliable read that every Canadian and American with an interest in energy policy should download promptly.

There isn't a lot new in the report for anyone who's been following the massive development underway in what used to be the boreal forests of northern Alberta. But we are treated to some useful numbers that help put the world's largest energy project into perspective. For example:

By 2020 the tars sands will become such an extraordinary industrial emitter of C02 that this mega project will exceed the annual emissions of the world's volcanoes.

Or, to put it another way, the carbon emissions associated with squeezing useful petroleum products out of the tar sands now exceeds the emissions of several Europeans countries. Among the report's key findings is:

If exploitation of the tar sands continues unabated, by 2020 it could produce more GHGs than either Austria, Portugal, Ireland or Denmark. The project's CO2 output could even rival or exceed that of Belgium, a nation of 10 million people. Emissions from the tar sands currently exceed those of several European nations including Estonia and Lithuania. Climate changing gases from two major mining operations now dwarf the emissions of Cyprus and Malta.

You don't have to be a Canadian obsessed with the dilemma posed by tar sands to find useful stuff in Nikiforuk's report. But it helps. By the time the project, which has attracted investment from all the world's major petroleum players, exceeds Belgium's carbon emissions in 2020, Canada will be hopelessly dependent on its contribution to the country's economy ;;;; to the tune of a $1 trillion a year. Already, the tar sands are largely responsible for keeping the Great White North afloat, hence the problem.

Without the tar sands, Canada's economy is toast. With them, Canada's per capita contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, will be so big that it could draw serious international sanctions, assuming that the rest of world agrees to start bringing emissions down soon. Barack Obama doesn't appear interested in enforcing U.S. law that would bar imports of dirty sources of energy, but sooner or later, that kind of pressure is likely to be expressed.

As I noted, Nikiforuk raises lots of other associated issues, such as the specter of dozens of ridiculously expensive nuclear power plants that will be required to the oil-extracting machinery of the tar sands and the increasing reliance that Canada's federal and provincial governments are placing on carbon capture and sequestration to reduce the carbon footprint of the tar sands. This latter strategy is doomed to failure as CCS simply isn't suited to mining for oil. Here's the arguments against CCS he finds compelling:

The Alberta government plans to meet at least 70 per cent of its planned reductions of 200 megatonnes of CO2 by 2050 by using CCS to capture CO2 and dump it in saline formations. The federal government estimates that it might be able to bury 40 per cent of the nation's emissions by 2050. Natural Resources Canada predicts the technology will be affordable and reliable by 2020, while the Alberta government says it's an investment "in the environment." Yet researchers and energy experts have identified a daunting array of research gaps and uncertainties. Critical barriers to widespread technological deployment of CSS include the following:

  1. No full-scale integrated CCS system for a coal fired plant or tar sands developer now exists. Commercial availability is still at least 10 to 15 years away.
  2. Concentrating and purifying CO2 for storage requires extreme amounts of energy, equivalent to nearly a third of the power produced by a coal-fired plant. Because CCS increases coal consumption at power plants, its life cycle has the highest emissions rate of nine well-known electricity-generating technologies.
  3. Organizations as varied as The Economist and Greenpeace have challenged the unruly economics of CCS. According to the US government, current CCS technology would cost $150 per ton of carbon and is "much too high for carbon emissions reduction applications." The Alberta Carbon Capture and Storage Development Council describes
  4. CCS as "expensive and currently uneconomic" without taxpayer subsidies of one to $3 billion a year over several decades.
  5. The scalability of CCS remains in doubt. Canadian energy expert Vaclav Smil argues that CCS would require an infrastructure base twice the size of the world's crude oil industry just to bury 25 per cent of the world's emissions, "an undertaking that would take many decades to accomplish."
  6. The risks of leakage and the need for monitoring at storage sites over several thousand years raise both global and local liability issues. Questions about the potential for significant groundwater contamination remain unanswered.
  7. With the exception of bitumen upgraders, CCS is largely unsuitable for tar sands. Emissions are so diverse from the project that a 2008 government study concluded "that only a small portion of the CO2 streams are currently amenable for CCS due to both the size of the emission streams and the concentration."
  8. Researchers admit that CCS could "founder on the shoals of inadequate and incoherent regulatory strategies." An independent Swiss group has concluded "vital information needed to create general governance capable of managing wide-scale commercial deployment of CCS is not yet available."
  9. CCS locks the world into more fossil fuel consumption and is not a bridge to renewable energy but a costly detour. Canadian energy analyst Peter Tertzakian calls it "an incredibly inefficient, energy-intensive system that is designed to clean up the energy from another very inefficient and wasteful process."

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Scary stuff indeed

Ya know what's even scarier?

The USA produces 70 times more GHG's than the Canadian tar sands ... just from coal fired power plants!!!

Context is a wonderful thing eh?

Just wait until the USA starts digging into their oil shale deposits ... far bigger, and far more inefficient to extract than our oil sands. You want GHG's? ... You ain't seen nothing yet

love the blog. for those visually inclined, there is a clip in the film "Home" ( that shows what extracting from tar sands looks like. doesn't take a genius to realize the negative consequences...

As Ken says "scarey stuff indeed". Of course fear is a powefull motivator.
I sure wish it would motivate us to get off the dime and get on with research for new energy sources. There are so many out there. The recent revelations regarding hydrogen fusion (not the Tokomak, but Polywell or focus fusion) are about to transform the future, according to some, and according to others we'll use fission..all to avoid what we fear might be the worst case scenarios and yet with about one tenth to one hundredth of the amount that's going to be invested in cap and trade we could begin the creation of space based solar energy systems. We already know they'll work and they'd eliminate the CO2 problem and more impoortantly to some, they'd be the plaform from which we could explore the neighborhood and most importantly, they'd be a place to look for and intercept the kinds of impactors that would really be the end of civilization and mabye even more. It's science.
By the way, I love Greenpeace. I've worked for them on campaigns, and scraped paint and primered parts of the Rainbow Warrior, and they are great folks...but they've blown it before by diverting attention from solutions in order to further their goals. They are noble and deserve support but are not infallible in their ability to accurately describe the parameters within which change can, and I think will, happen. I am optimistic.

Extracting goo from tar sands is a very costly exercise; it is currently economically viable due to the high price of oil. I cannot imagine the price of oil going down much considering the growing demand and the difficulty of ensuring supply, so you can bet tar sands will be up on the list of things to mine. As the economists and insurance actuarials like to tell me, that can be controlled by putting a price on things like CO2 emissions. The tough pill to swallow is accepting that we will pay so much more for everything in the future when we do bring in carbon taxes; it is vital that politicians get the policy right and actually do something with beneficial effects rather than simply drive up inflation while playing games to no effect. Regardless of global warming, we need to move away from the limited fossil fuel supplies in order to give future civilizations a chance to survive. Even at current production rates, oil and gas reserves may only last another 2 or 3 generations; coal may last another 10 generations - what we do know is that these things will not last forever and the experts' best guesses see the end coming up in the not so distant future.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 15 Sep 2009 #permalink

Too bad that the only viable solution to GHG right now is replacement of all coal fired power plants by nuclear breeder reactors. They even could provide the power to electrolyze enough water to affordably produce liquid fuels from coal to reduce the reliance on foreign oil.
If there wasn't that issue of safety and long term disposal ...