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Written by William Quinn   
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Thursday, 06 January 2011

Oil Sands

Whether we have reached “peak oil” yet is up for debate. Peak oil is “the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognizing that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion."1 The peak oil crisis refers to the time when the petroleum supply is so low that extraction is no longer economically justifiable and stops forever.2 What is not up for debate is the United States’ reliance upon fossil fuels.

Conventional petroleum can be thought of as the cartoonish stream gushing out of the earth once stumbled upon by the Texas rancher. On the other hand, “continuous petroleum,” or unconventional petroleum, are less concentrated and are substantially harder to extract than conventional petroleum.3 Here we’re talking about things like natural gas and bituminous sands—also known as “oil sands” or “tar sands.” Let’s take a closer look at oil sands and see why they are attractive, why they are not attractive, and who stands to benefit if oil sand reserves become the next Saudi Arabian oil fields.

How do we get oil out of these oil sands? The oil sands themselves are a combination of sand, clay, water, and bitumen.4 The sands must be mined and processed to extract the bitumen, which is then refined into oil.5 Bitumen—the stuff being extracted from oil sand deposits—is petroleum that “exists in a semi-solid or solid phase.”6 It is best described as a “thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy and viscous (thick) that it will not flow unless heated… at room temperature, it’s a lot like cold molasses.”7 It is a cumbersome process that has only recently become worth considering due to the declining supply and increasing price of conventional petroleum. After all is said and done, around 2 tons of tar sands are needed to produce 1 barrel of oil.8

Why are oil sands now becoming attractive given all the extra work involved? Because the oil sands’ potential is just too tempting... There is so much of it, and we already have the infrastructure to handle hydrocarbon energies like petroleum, so it is all too easy to rely on something like oil sands rather than moving towards carbon neutral energies such as wind, solar, and nuclear.

9
Trucks extracting from the Athabasca Oil Sands in Canada

How much oil is out there? It is unclear just how much of the world’s oil reserves are in the form of oil sands. Some estimate that 2/3 of all the world’s oil reserves could be oil sands—perhaps more than 2 trillion barrels. However, this is difficult to estimate for two major reasons: 1) it is flat out difficult to estimate reserves, even with improving technologies, so estimates are just educated guesses, and 2) just because an oil sand reserve is discovered two miles underground, it may not be extractable.10 If the reserve can be recovered using existing equipment with reasonable certainty, then it is considered a “proved” reserve.11 This standard is not sufficient for everyone, however, right now these oil sands are underground and nations want at ‘em!


Oil Sands Supply and Demand: The U.S. seems to be the country to target since it is the largest consumer of oil in the world, receiving 9-12 million barrels/day through imports ($140 billion worth of oil every year), and consuming 18.7 million barrels of oil per day.12 As it stands, Canada is the number one exporter of crude oil to the U.S. followed by Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, respectively. Increasing oil sand production could change this list…

In 2008, Canada had the second largest proven oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, with 99% of the reserves being crude bitumen from oil sands.13 For more on Canadian Oil, check out "Canadian Oil". Venezuela on the other hand, is not so easy to estimate. According to Oil and Gas Journal (OGJ), Venezuela had 79.7 billion barrels of proven conventional oil reserves in 2005, the largest amount in the Western Hemisphere. Thhis estimate, however, does not include oil sands, which could be as high as 270 billion barrels—potentially making it the world’s largest holder of oil.14 Unfortunately for the U.S., diplomatic relations with Venezuela have been strained for years, thus reducing the certainty of importing from the country. So, even if they do have the most oil, they are not going to be as reliable a source as Canada. This may not be such a bad thing, however, considering the negative side of oil sands and more petroleum production…

The downside—even dirtier than conventional petroleum? Yes, and not surprisingly, there is enormous debate around just how much worse oil sands are for the environment when compared to conventional petroleum. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in 2008, oil sands production emitted 8-37% more green house gasses than the U.S. 2005 gasoline baseline.15 Claims have been made that oil sands emit “two or three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil [production].”16 In light of this negative press, a new research study by the Cambridge Energy Research Associates estimated increased emissions at 5-15%.17 And, in response, a Natural Resource Defense Council blogger said the study lacked transparency and was misleading, going back to the EPA’s 5-37% for support.18 There is the potential for the oil from these tar sands to increase U.S. CO2 emissions by about 150 million tons of per year.19 While these numbers are important, and will continue to be debated going forward, what is shocking is how much this industry is expanding even with the knowledge that oil sands are dirtier than conventional petroleum.

The real fear is that all of this work for oil sands—moving up to four tons of earth for one barrel of oil—is representative of America’s choice going forward.20 Either we can go green with carbon-neutral alternative energies, or we can continue down a destructive path and chase down petroleum because America knows and loves oil. Just because something has become economically recoverable does not mean we should pursue it. Rising oil prices and declining supplies mean it is time to invest in clean energy alternatives, not find new ways to sustain our addiction to oil!

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1 http://www.peakoil.net/about-peak-oil
2 http://www.tsl.uu.se/uhdsg/Publications/PeakOilAge.pdf
3 http://certmapper.cr.usgs.gov/data/noga00/natl/text/CH_19.pdf
4 http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/index.cfm
5 Id.
6 http://www.canadasoilsands.ca/en/glossary.aspx
7 Id.
8 http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/index.cfm
9 http://www.woodbuffalo.ab.ca/Visiting_2228/Attractions/Oil-Sands.htm
10 Id.
11 http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/proved-reserves.html
12 http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/100726/top-7-us-oil-importers
13 http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/791.asp
14 http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_profile_of_Venezuela
15 http://docs.nrdc.org/energy/files/ene_10070101a.pdf
16 http://www.treehugger.com/files/2005/12/canadian_oil_at.php
17 http://www2.ihscera.com/docs/Oil_Sands_Energy_Dialogue_0810.pdf
18 http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/smui/tar_sands_and_ghg_emissions_se.html#ftn1
19 Id.
20 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text/3




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