Fresh Ideas: What are tar sands?
March 6, 2013
My Facebook friend Bob knows a lot about energy, and often there’s an interesting discussion on his page. A few weeks ago we were talking about the nature of the oil that will flow through the Keystone XL Pipeline — if it’s built — from the Athabascan tar sands of Alberta, Canada, through the American Midwest to refineries in Texas. Someone asked, “Isn’t oil just oil? And isn’t it just sitting there in vast underground reservoirs?”Well, no. And no again. The product made from the Alberta tar sands (or, more accurately, bituminous sands) is synthetic oil. The bitumen has to go through process after process — from making it liquid enough to get out of the ground in the first place, to separating it from the sand in which it is found, to making it liquid enough to transport in a pipeline, to refining the liquid that comes out the other end of the pipeline. It’s nasty stuff. Here’s Rick George, president of Suncor Energy — a company that has been mining tar sands since 1967 — talking about bitumen in a 2008 speech: You can’t use it as a lubricant because “it contains minerals nearly as abrasive as diamonds.” You can’t pump it because “it’s hard as a hockey puck in its natural state.” He concluded that the resource “has no value, other than the value we create.”Dr. Steven Kuznicki, a scholar at a Canadian oil think tank, says “Bitumen is five percent sulfur, half a percent nitrogen and 1,000 parts per million heavy metals. Its viscosity (stickiness) is like tar on a cold day. It’s ugly.”Some of the bitumen is extracted from the Athabascan tar sands by strip-mining. The so-called overburden — the living ecosystem consisting of muskeg, boreal forest, sand and rock and all the associated plants and animals — is stripped away. Hot water and caustic soda is added to the sand to separate the bitumen. It takes 2 tons of sand to extract one barrel of crude oil. As of 2011, about 256 square miles of land had been disturbed for tar sand mining. Bitumen is extracted from deeper layers by a process that involves pumping steam into the deposit, warming the bitumen enough to melt it, then pumping it out. Both in situ and strip-mining use a lot of water; approximately 2 to 4.5 barrels of water are needed to extract each barrel of synthetic crude oil from tar sands. Heating up that water takes a lot of energy. Much of the fuel used to boil water to make the steam is natural gas — not a very efficient use for such a high-quality energy resource. One report from the Canadian federal government said that overall, about one joule of energy is used to produce 1.4 joules of energy as gasoline by this process.Once the bitumen is separated from the sand, it still is too viscous to flow through a pipeline, so it either has to be mixed with lighter petroleum — which has to be trucked to northern Canada for the purpose — or it has to go through a further process that takes large amounts of energy and water and emits more carbon dioxide than refining regular crude oil. In fact, the entire process of extracting, refining and transporting bitumen from the Alberta tar sands — “well-to-wheels” — emits 5 percent to 15 percent more carbon dioxide than average crude oil.How does any of this make sense? The Canadian government has staked the economic future of the country on tar sands. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says, “an ocean of oil-soaked sand lies under the muskeg of northern Alberta… The oil sands are the second largest oil deposit in the world … exceeded only by Saudi Arabia … And that’s why industry analysts are recommending Canada as possessing the most attractive combination of circumstances for energy investment of any place in the world.’”To get this synthetic crude oil to refineries will take a long pipeline — the Keystone XL pipeline through the American Midwest. Environmental issues with this pipeline include the fact that it will pass over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, which provides drinking water to about 1.8 million people and yields about 30 percent of all the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States. Environmentalists, farmers, political leaders, and tribes worry about the effects of an oil spill on this critical resource.Last week the U.S. State Department issued a supplemental environmental impact statement on the pipeline that, according to The New York Times, “makes no recommendation that the pipeline should be built but presents no conclusive environmental reason that it should not be.” The final decision about whether to issue a permit for the pipeline will be the president’s.So, no, it’s not just oil. It’s a substance that is very expensive to obtain in dollars, energy, and environmental damage and risk ? much more expensive than any kind of oil used previously. The era of cheap oil is over. How long do we continue to devastate our environment before we finally understand that and move to more sustainable energy sources?• Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a longtime resident of Carson City.