As barrel prices continue to soar and our oil addiction grows stronger, we continue to look for renewable energy alternatives and green innovation in hopes of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Eventually, there will come a time when we squeeze every ounce of oil from the Earth, but for now, the Canadian Oil Sands appear to have all of our global oil production needs covered. Alberta oil sands deposits represent the second-largest petroleum reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia’s, and production is expected to more than double during the next five years. Sounds good, right? Not so fast…
The Athabasca oil sands are large deposits of heavy crude oil (bitumen), located in northeastern Alberta, Canada. In addition to bitumen, oil sands also include a mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, and water. Bitumen must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce gasoline and diesel fuels. At room temperature, bitumen acts similarly to cold molasses, making it difficult to work with. A variety of treatment methods are currently available to oil sand producers and new technology is constantly being developed.
Canada’s first oil sands mine started production in 1967 and has rapidly expanded in the past decade. The Athabasca Valley is the most active region for this unique method of oil extraction. However, this is not an easy process. The first thing that must be done is to clear the forest, then remove the dirt above the oil sands layer, along with two tons of sand itself. One of the problems is that only twenty percent of Canada’s total oil sands area has deposits close enough to the surface to be mined. So how do they reach the deeper areas of the earth?
If you consider everything involved to produce a single barrel of oil, the oil sands process is easily the most energy intensive type of oil available. Consequently, oil sands development is the single largest contributor to the increase in climate change in Canada, and it is estimated that it will account for 80 million tons of CO2 emissions this year.
The oil sands industry claims that they are doing everything they can to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and protect the environment. Canada made an international commitment to meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets outlined in the Kyoto Protocol – the goal was to reduce emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. Unfortunately, Canada hasn’t come anywhere close to this number so far. In 2004 emissions levels had significantly increased and continue to rise. Oil sands executives insist that they will find a way to reduce this number, but in order to meet their goal, emissions must go down by 280 million tons per year. If the tar sands continue to operate as predicted, there is no way they will achieve this goal.
So let’s pretend that the oil sands industry eventually finds a way to reduce CO2 emissions. There are still a variety of ecological concerns that haven’t been addressed. What about the water issue? One of the major concerns about the oil sands is the amount of water required in the oil extraction process. One barrel is lost, destroyed and gone forever, for every barrel of oil produced. Also, if the tar sands are to supply the ever growing appetite for oil in the US, Canada and China, it is likely it will require tailing ponds the size of Lake Ontario. After all, the moisture involved in the steam process has to go somewhere. Because the oil is locked into the earth’s surface, there is no barrier to keep it from the water table. The heating process is slow and takes years, and so is the cooling process. Usually the contaminated water will discharge into tailing ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. Because this process has been going on for years, the tailing ponds now cover over 75 square miles and are in danger of polluting other water sources, including the Athabasca River. As a result, there have been multiple instances of ducks and other animals dying from pollutants in the water. There is now research that supports what many believed for years. A recent study revealed that scientists found increased levels of carcinogenic chemicals linked to oil sands mining in the Athabasca River.
“Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world,” says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a widely respected Canadian environmental group. “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.”
Isn’t it time to finally kick our dirty oil addiction and turn to more sustainable energy sources?