National Geographic on the oil sands

2009-03-01

in Canada, Economics, Politics, Rants, The environment

Warning signs

National Geographic has released a feature article on Alberta’s oil sands. It highlights the immense scale of what is going on: geographically, economically, and in terms of water and energy usage:

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake.

In total, the oil sands extent through an area the size of North Carolina – half of which has already been leased by the Alberta Government. That includes all 3500 square kilometres that are currently minable. In exchange, leases and royalties provide 1/3 of government income: estimated at $12 billion this year, despite the fall in oil prices.

The article also discusses some of the toxins leached by the mining operations, their impacts of health, and the inadequate work that has been done to investigate and contain them.

In the end, it is hard to write anything about the oil sands that isn’t damning, unless all it includes is information on the size and economic value of the oil reserves. The article includes a good quote from Simon Dyer, of the Pembina Institute, highlighting how the extraction of the oil sands is a mark of desperation:

Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world. Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.

The solution is not the ever-more-costly and destructive search for new hydrocarbon resources, but rather the eclipsing of the hydrocarbon economy with one based on sustainable energy.

In addition to the article, National Geographic has also produced a flash slideshow of oil sands photographs.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 1, 2009 at 11:16 am

The depressing thing is that oil sands oil is “easy” oil – not compared to oil that just spurts out of the ground, but when you consider oil only needs to cost something like 70$ a barrel for the oil sands to be profitable, and that 70$ a barrel means petrol is still a very cheap fuel, oil sands oil is cheap oil. The relevant test for whether an oil is “easy” or not shouldn’t be the absolute cost of its extraction – decisions are made on the margin, and the fact that oil in wells might be 30 times easier to extract, I think, is distorting of the real issue, which is that the market, absent of a government’s willingness to include externalities in the cost of doing business, will catastrophically exploit the oil sands without the price of oil needing to rise above a point where people will not switch away from petroleum energy products.

Milan March 1, 2009 at 11:23 am

This previous post relates to the above:

Oil production and energy return on investment (EROI)

Without cheap natural gas, the oil sands couldn’t be exploited in the current manner. As with ethanol, the costs of liquid fuels will increasingly reflect the energy inputs required to produce them (as well as government policies, be they taxes or mandates).

. March 1, 2009 at 11:26 am

“For a light, sweet oil such as the output of a syncrude unit, that step is going to be 12/1 or better. Putting the two steps together, I calculate that I need to spend 1.5 million BTUs to produce the oil, and another 5.8/12 = 0.5 million BTUs to refine it to gasoline and diesel. Total process is then 5.8 million BTUs/2 = 2.9/1 for the production and refining processes. Conventional light, sweet oil is around 6/1 for the entire process of oil in the ground to gasoline in the tank.

[T]he tar sands is more than 2.5 times as energy intensive to refine to gasoline than is conventional oil.”

. March 1, 2009 at 11:28 am
Milan March 1, 2009 at 12:13 pm

This is why the Mackenzie gas pipeline and/or nuclear reactors for steam production and bitumen upgrading are probably crucial to the medium-term future of the oil sands.

Tristan March 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I will find it almost surprising if the state doesn’t pursue the nuclear option – it’s clearly the best way to “green” the tar sands.

Regardless, everything we see here confirms one truth – that capitalism in practice means subsidies for big business, either in the form of spending, policy which distorts market price structures, or overlooking externalities.

Milan March 1, 2009 at 12:57 pm

I think it’s fairer to say that capitalism never automatically takes the interests of future generations into account. It’s not just big business that benefits from our current fossil fuel energy bonanza.

In many ways, the critical issue is what proportion of all the fossil fuels available we burn. Depending on the sensitivity of the climate system, higher and lower upper boundaries can be calculated. Even assuming a very insensitive climate, however, we can’t get away with burning all the world’s coal and conventional fossil fuels, without causing catastrophic warming.

The only sane option is to leave most of what’s left in the ground.

Tristan March 1, 2009 at 9:23 pm

There’s lots capitalism doesn’t take into account. Right now we’re feeling it’s structural tendency to under-price systemic risk.

. March 1, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Subsidizing Mackenzie Valley gas
JANUARY 20, 2009

It is hard to read the decision of the current government to support the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline as anything aside from a disappointment. To begin with, it was inappropriate to have the decision announced by the minister of the environment. After all, he should be the one in cabinet demanding that the environmental impacts of the plan be fully investigated. Secondly, it seems inappropriate to offer such aid while the Joint Review Panel is still examining the likely social and economic impacts of the plan.

Milan March 2, 2009 at 10:34 am

Here is a chart I made, showing Weaver’s estimates of how much humanity can emit without exceeding a 1/3 chance of having temperatures rise by more than two degrees. A larger temperature increase is reckoned by most to be a ‘dangerous’ level of anthropogenic climate change

On the left is a scenario where the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gasses is very low (just two degrees of increase when CO2 concentrations double). Each bar leftwards shows a progressively more sensitive planet, with the two middle options being the current high and low estimates of the IPCC. The rightmost bar shows total emissions to date.

It is important to note that the grey bars show the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions humanity can emit across all time, from the first usage of fossil fuels to the achievement of carbon neutrality.

Tristan March 2, 2009 at 11:04 am

Rex Murphy’s minute this week was critical of the article, calling them “high minded hypocrites”. His point, roughly, was that so long as we expect to live in the kind of energy intensive world based on oil, which we live in now, we can’t complain about how ugly this is – that they photographed the ugly, but not the innovations and wealth that come of it.

It seems to me that he’s right only if we take as granted that we aren’t going to ask difficult questions about whether those beautiful results of an energy intensive economy are worth it – is a prosperous Calgary, fancy medical equipment etc.. worth all the uglyness, and more specifically – the high cost of anthropogenic climate change. This is a difficult question even to ask – it’s easy to say we can’t put our lifestyle up for question, Bush has been saying this for the better part of ten years.

But this is exactly wrong – the point of articles like this National Geographic piece on the oil sands, and “Manafactured Landscapes”, is to show precisely that this uglyness, this destruction is included – not separate – from our current prosperity, transportation networks, etc… These articles should encourage us to ask the difficult question – is our current prosperity worth this?

The ironic thing is according to Rex’s logic, he’d have to approve of the article if it showed ‘both sides of the story’ – i.e. a spread on the oil sands accompanied by a spread on the prosperity it brings. The reason this is ironic is I think this kind of article, which showed “both sides of the story”, would be even more condemning of the prosperity as tainted – you’d literally have to recognize the relation between our lifestyles and the destruction as one of mutual inclusion – so not only does the uglyness of the oil sands include the beauty of the prosperity, the beauty of the prosperity includes the uglyness of the oil sands.

Milan March 2, 2009 at 11:16 am

It’s also worth noting that most of the ugliness associated with the oil sands won’t occur in the former boreal forests of Alberta. Across the span of time when the excess CO2 will be in the atmosphere (thousands of years), the impacts on human beings and ecosystems worldwide will almost certainly be more significant.

Rex Murphy March 2, 2009 at 1:26 pm

But, the pictures were taken from helicopters! And the reporters got there on roads! So they’re all dirty hypocrites!

. March 3, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Just what is Rex Murphy smoking? His position — that Alberta’s oil sands is bringing home the Canadian bacon so we should just shut up – borderline insulting, and ignores the fact that the oil sands — despite its job and wealth creation so far – is a generational symbol of the crossroads we are at. We either choose to go down an unsustainable path or we begin creating some other paths to make the transition less painful in the long term. Attacking National Geographic for consuming fuel in the course of making its story is like blaming the dog for eating the slop that’s put in front of him. We, as average Canadians, haven’t had much say about it.

. March 9, 2009 at 3:47 pm

The Hill Times – PM, Prentice, and Ignatieff should all pull their heads out of the tar sands, now

March 9, 2009
Canada does have a major public relations challenge on its hands. It’s called the oil sands.
By Chantal Hébert

OTTAWA—Speaking with one voice for once, Canada’s two main parties scoffed at the graphic depiction of the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands that graces the latest edition of the popular National Geographic magazine.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he did not take his orders from a foreign publication while Environment Minister Jim Prentice shrugged off the notion that Canada had a major public relations challenge on his hands.

One can only hope they soon pull their heads out of the sand.

National Geographic is only the latest publication to offer its readers a less than flattering spread on the oil sands.

. March 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm

James Hansen on the Tar Sands…

“The horrendously carbon-intensive unconventional fossil fuels, tar shale in the United States and tar sands in Canada, cannot be developed. The carbon emissions from tar shale and tar sands would initiate a continual unfolding of climate disasters over the course of this century. We would be miserable stewards of creation. We would rob our own children and grandchildren.”

. March 31, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Industry Commentary

March 30, 2009
CAPP: National Geographic Gives A Partial Picture Of The Oilsands

Oil sands mines are expensive, large-scale, long-life projects with a significant impact on the landscape before they are fully reclaimed. Industry has never argued this point. However, environmental impacts must be considered in context, both with regard to their relative impact and with regard to their economic and energy security benefits. Oil sands development creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic investment and government revenues.

The Canadian oil sands have a significant role to play in providing North America a means to reduce dependence on petroleum energy supply from the middle-east and other less secure regions. It is also worth noting that many of these regions have significantly less stringent environmental regulations in place than exist currently in Canada.

. April 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Discover: Man’s Greatest Crimes Against the Earth, in Pictures

Discover Magazine presents a slideshow that showcases nine human-generated environmental disasters, including mountaintop removal, deforestation in Indonesia, the December ‘08 Tennessee coal ash spill, bushmeat—and more.

Check it out here

. November 23, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Agit Pop have created an awesome video (below) that explains how Canada’s tar sands project is the largest and most destructive project on earth with a “toxic sacrifice zone” the size of England. A video explains how destructive the project is to wildlife, to the environment, to native people, and to Canada’s

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