Saturday, May 31, 2008

Slow Motion Oil Spill

As a Canadian living abroad, I have to admit to being more than a little proud of pointing out some of the Canadianisms that are with all of us. Whenever a Canadian song comes on or a Canadian actor appears on the screen, I'm guilty of being the guy who has to say, “s/he's Canadian, eh!”. The maple leaf, a beaver, even a hockey game always make me smile. That's why today's post is so difficult to write. If someone were to ask you where the largest recoverable source of oil in the world was located outside of Saudi Arabia, what would you answer? Unfortunately, I'd have to answer that it, along with Celine Dion, is Canadian. Welcome to the biggest capital project underway on earth.

Having grown up in the capital of Alberta, Edmonton, I've always known of the existence of tar sands. Today, you're more likely to hear the term oil sands to describe the Florida sized reserve of oil trapped in dirt, sand and rock in the northern portion of my home province. It is actually deposits of bitumen, a molasses-like viscous oil that won't flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. Essentially, it is oil trapped in the rock. Fortunately, for most our lives, the price of a barrel of oil has been under $30 a barrel which made extracting the oil from the muck an uneconomical proposal. Of course, 2008 has brought with it a new world energy order, one where oil companies have been given the green light to rape the world at any cost in order to keep America running.

So how is this goo extracted from the earth? There is the “easy” way, and the “hard” way. The easy stuff is near the surface, representing about 20% of the reserves. The topsoil is simply scraped away by huge excavators and the underlying tar sands are dug out and put in huge trucks and taken for extraction. It is steamed to extract the heavy bitumenous oils and piped to refineries. The hard way, for the remaining 80% that lies in sand too deep to be mined again involves steam. It is injected deep into the earth, loosening the bitumen, allowing the producers to draw it upward.

Searching for reliable information can be exasperating due to the fact that the federal and provincial governments have decided to give the oil companies themselves oversight over the environmental impact. A more extensive report on the cost can be found here if you have the time to study. A simple input/output analysis of extracting one barrel (1/8 of a ton) of usable oil is: (mostly 2006 figures)
-two tons of tar sands (yes about 16 times the weight of oil you'll get)
-two to four and a half, I've read as much as 3 to 7, barrels of water (yes, some is recoverable, most goes to tailage ponds, some of which can be seen from space)
-um, that's about 350 million cubic metres a year, twice the amount the city of Calgary uses
-one to 1.25 gigajoules of natural gas. The barrel of oil that will eventually be produced is about 6.227 gigajoules, so about a fifth is wasted off the top
-that's 1,000 cubic feet per barrel of oil, 20% of Canada's total natural gas production goes to the extraction process, and it still will need further refining
-does this remind anyone of reverse alchemy, turning gold into lead as we take a relatively clean burning fuel, natural gas, and turn it into crude oil?
- one barrel of oil (that will still require further refining and will eventually contain 6 times the carbon levels of conventional sweet crude)
- between 85 and 125 kg of CO2 simply from the extraction, with refining and ultimate use still to add much more (by comparison conventional oil extraction releases about 28.6 kg)
-these oil sands are centred in one is the boreal forest ecosystem which stores more carbon in its peat lands, soil and trees than any other ecosystem in the world, yes, including the tropical forests, that's why there's so much of this stuff. The lungs of North America are being ripped out to produce the destroyer
-the Athabasca River, Canada's longest river runs through the heart of the area has a experienced a runoff decrease of 50% in the 93.7% of the Athabasca Basin that is downstream of the Rocky Mountains.
-pollution as far downstream as the Peace-Athabasca Delta which drains 1/6 of Canada's water, causing mercury levels to rise 98% higher, a jump of 466% of dissolved arsenic and 114% in sediment arsenic
-seepage and plain old dumping into the water system creating cool looking mutant fish
-arsenic levels 453 times acceptable levels in moose meat from the region
-cancer clusters popping up in areas downstream, potentially 458 times higher rates than expected
-huge tailing ponds of used, dirty, toxic water that kills anything that lands on it
-an old fashion gold rush boom town, Fort McMurray, a place I've had the opportunity to visit. It was the middle of the summer, which due to it's northern latitude meant that I enjoyed a midnight sun of sorts as it never quite set. The population has doubled in the last 9 years to about 75,000 with a “shadow” population of 12,000 living in work camps, campgrounds or hotels. (With debilitating effects on the infrastructure link)
-fun for conspiracy theorists as the amount of cover up from these effects becomes known, lives destroyed, people dying. For an excellent article click here.

While most people probably think of Canada as an environmentally friendly country, they are not only allowing this to happen, but encouraging it, while the Americans are at least keeping the oil companies out of Alaska... strange dichotomy. One report called the fiasco a slow motion oil spill, which is essentially the game being played by the powers that be. As long as the oil can get pulled out of the ground fast enough, hopefully not enough people will notice what's going on. Oil companies are pouring money into the area on a mind-boggling scale. As of 2006 the Alberta government said it had issued leases for 4,264 oil sands projects covering 25,065 miles. New projects costing more than $100 billion are on the books for the region as production is expected to at least triple to 3 million barrels a day by 2015.

The Alberta provincial government says it has issued leases for 4,264 oil sands projects covering 25,065 square miles . It knows the oil industry, luring them to invest by only charging a 1% royalty until capital costs are recovered. New projects costing more than C$100 billion are on the books for the oil sands region and production is expected to triple to 3 million barrels a day by 2015. This is a government that also knows it's people, who in turn have kept the Conservative party in power since 1971. Over the years the Alberta government has shown the people that they are saving for the future by building the Heritage Trust fund and issuing occasional royalty cheques to the people. However, when you contrast what a country like Norway has done with it's resource wealth, it puts Alberta to shame. 32 years of savings equals $16.6 billion in Alberta, in Norway they have over 160 billion Euros! Environmental Defence calls the whole thing the most destructive project on Earth and it's hard to argue. From the huge toxic tailing ponds with earthen dams holding them back from the river, rivalled in size only by China's Three Gorges dam, which could burst any time and are continually seeping into the groundwater to the greenhouse emissions that have forced the entire country to abandon it's Kyoto commitments, it is a source of intense shame to any Canadian. More importantly it's could be the biggest danger to mankind in the entire world.