CREDIT: Source: Suncor Energy Inc., BLM
The controversial oil extraction process made famous by Canada — deemed the world’s “dirtiest type of liquid fuel” — is coming to America.
According to a Sunday report in DeSmogBlog, a Canadian company called U.S. Oil Sands has received all the necessary permits to open the nation’s second commercial-scale tar sands mine, which will soon begin producing tar sands oil — a thick, hard-to-extract mixture of heavy oil, sand, and water. The Utah Unitah Basin project will be allowed to extract 2,000 barrels of oil per day. Some scientists say the unique and energy-intensive extraction process produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil.
In Canada, tar sands are booming. The third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world next to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, rapid production there has caused new pipeline proposals to pop up like daisies — most notably the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta all the way to Texas.
America, however, has not yet attempted to extract its tar sands oil. According to the Bureau of Land Management there are 12 to 19 billion barrels of tar sands oil in Utah, though not all of it is recoverable. And recovering it is not easy, as DeSmogBlog notes:
U.S. Oil Sands’ water-and-energy-intensive extraction process involves first digging up congealed tar sands, then crushing them to reduce their size. The company then mixes the crushed sand with large amounts of hot water (at a temperature of 122-176°F) to loosen up and liquefy the tarry, oil-containing residue and separating it from the sand.
Next, coarse solids sink, are subsequently removed and considered waste tailings. Air is then bubbled through the remaining water-oil mixture, which makes the oil float to the top in what’s referred to as “bitumen froth,” in industry lingo. The froth is then deaerated, meaning all the air molecules are removed.
After this, as BLM notes, it takes approximately four tons of sand and four barrels of fresh water to make a barrel of oil, which is the equivalent of about 42 gallons. The amount of water the process uses is of particular concern in Utah, where water is scarce. Still, U.S. Oil Sands has received permits from the Utah Water Quality Board despite questions about the ongoing water crisis in Utah and the American southwest.
Extracting and burning tar sands oil also produces a byproduct called “petcoke” — a coal-like, high-sulfur, high-carbon solid that burns dirtier than coal. It also tends to get stored in huge piles that can release huge, dirty dust clouds on unsuspecting residents.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, federal scientists have found that the area’s large tar sands deposits are now surrounded by a nearly 7,500-square-mile ring of mercury.