The tar sands — Canada’s version of liquid coal

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"The tar sands — Canada’s version of liquid coal"

tar_sands.jpgCanada has about as much recoverable oil in its tar sands as Saudi Arabia has conventional oil. They should leave most of it in the ground.

Tar sands are pretty much the heavy gunk they sound like, and making liquid fuels from them requires huge amounts of energy for steam injection and refining. Canada is currently producing about one million barrels of oil a day from the tar sands, and that is projected to triple over the next two decades.

The tar sands are doubly dirty. On the one hand, the energy-intensive conversion of the tar sands directly generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. On the other hand, Canada’s increasing use of natural gas to exploit the tar sands is one reason that its exports of natural gas to United States are projected to shrink in the coming years.

So instead of selling clean-burning natural gas to this country, which we could use to stop the growth of carbon-intensive coal generation, Canada will provide us with a more carbon-intensive oil product to burn in our cars. That’s lose-lose.

From a climate perspective, fully exploiting the tar sands resource would make Canada’s climate policy as immoral as ours. The tar sands are almost as bad as liquid coal.

If you’d like to see some good recent critiques of the tar sands economics and impact…

Energy and Capital has what you’re looking for in two excellent posts. The first is on cost issue, and concludes:

If the royalties on the tar sands were allowed to rise to anywhere near the normal levels for oil-around 40%, not 1%-the entire industry would cease to be. The profit would vanish, simple as that.

The second is on water, energy, labor, and the environment. The tar sands, like liquid coal, is a water hog. The article notes, “According to a recent joint study by the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta, the projected expansion of the tar sands projects will kill the Athabasca River, the only abundant source of water in the area.”

Is Canada wise enough not to fully develop the tar sands? As of today, the answer appears to be “no.”

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9 Responses to The tar sands — Canada’s version of liquid coal

  1. tidal says:

    This is a classic example of why we so desperately need a price on carbon – be it a tax or some sort of cap. So long as there is none (and none on the water degradation as well), then the economics are straightforward. The EROEI* is positive (about 110% to 120% if I recall my reading of those articles last month) and therefore you undertake production. (*Energy Return on Energy Investeed).

    There is another decent/recent article in Macleans magazine here http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20071008_110103_110103&source=srch , which references an upcoming book on the subject: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care) http://www.amazon.com/Stupid-Last-Drop-Environmental-Armageddon/dp/0676979130/ref=sr_1_1/104-4542983-7076760?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1192127232&sr=8-1

    Remarkably, the author claims that the province once seriously considered a plan to detonate an underground nuclear bomb to extract oil sands… I wonder what the EROEI was on that???

  2. Anonymous says:

    If there weren’t buyers, it wouldn’t be produced. Most of Canadians aren’t too happy about this project. It’s had a HUGE impact on shooting us vastly off course to hit our Kyoto targets. It’s also causing pollution problems in neighbouring provinces and threatening water supplies. Development may slow because of these factors. There’s more to this story than us being “unwise”. If Canada’s Prime Minister weren’t from Alberta, there might be more brakes put on tar sands development. As long as oil supplies are shrinking and the price keeps going up, that oil will be extracted and exported to whoever’s willing to pay for it.

  3. unwisecanadian says:

    If there weren’t buyers, it wouldn’t be produced. Most of Canadians aren’t too happy about this project. It’s had a HUGE impact on shooting us vastly off course to hit our Kyoto targets. It’s also causing pollution problems in neighbouring provinces and threatening water supplies. Development may slow because of these factors. There’s more to this story than us being “unwise”. If Canada’s Prime Minister weren’t from Alberta, there might be more brakes put on tar sands development. As long as oil supplies are shrinking and the price keeps going up, that oil will be extracted and exported to whoever’s willing to pay for it.

  4. Roy says:

    If you repeat misleading information often enough does it become true?

    The atom bomb idea was in the late 1950s or early 1960s. In that era engineers were talking about using the bombs to dig an alternative to the Panama Canal, cut new mountain passes and all kinds of other things engineers thought would be nifty if you had an explosive that could make real big holes in the ground. The rest is similarly exaggerated or leave out facts that cast a different light on the issue.

    I suppose you are actually a shill for polluters. If you act deceptively, it will cast doubt on legitimate concerns.

  5. shortie says:

    the whole tar sand thing is an outrage… its like people are talking money from our pockets when all alone it belongs to us workers and our familys.

  6. webmaster says:

    Great Job
    interesting topic , I would like to read more on this topic and Steam Coal Suppliers .

  7. Tom says:

    Hey shortie learn how to spell . I would like to say that has anyone in this forum thought of away to come up with a energy source that is cheap and abundent enough for every one in the world to use ???

    All you people love the internet . The plastic you use to type you free thoughts come form your dirty oil . Every plastic thing you own is made from oil . Oh I know lets not make things out of plastic any more and only use natural things like wood . Oh I guess we can’t do that iether because we need trees too huh . Listen why don’t you start by turning off lights that you don’t need / Turn your thermastats down low and wear an extra sweater . Lobby your goverments and ask them to make a law to make buisnesses to turn of there lights at night . It’s not just the tar sands its every bodie in the planet .

  8. John says:

    With the increases in world population & requirements for dwindling oil resources the development of the Canadian tar sands is a vital resource for world oil supply. In light of world views on development of the Canadian oil sands as a unnecessary increase in the carbon footprint for the oil produced, perhaps other more palatable approaches should be considered such as the use of nuclear energy in the processing of the tar sands. Just what Alberta needs, a second burgeoning industry.