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Tar sands: Heavy price for heavy oil?

Greenhouse gases and tar sands

Street protest in city with four people in holding sign saying the tar sands are toxic
Photo: June 16th, 2008, ItzaFineDay
This protest at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Investors Conference was organized by the Sierra Club, ForestEthics, Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Do oil sands contribute to the global warming problem? Probably so, largely because the industry devoured 12 percent of Canada's total natural gas output in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Shell's Philip Vircoe admits that making synthetic oil requires more energy than conventional oil, but says the difference tends to fade if we look at the total amount of carbon dioxide produced when the fuel is produced and burned. In this analysis, he says, "Oil sands is [only] 15 percent more carbon intensive than conventional fuel, and we are working to reduce this through energy efficiency improvements and exploring the potential for large scale carbon capture and sequestration."

Carbon capture and storage is projected to be energy-intensive, but theoretically it can remove massive amounts of the primary greenhouse gases from burned fossil fuels. However, the technology is only being done at one industrial location, and therefore must be considered experimental.

In the meantime, critics charge that tar sands operations are burning a clean fuel (natural gas) in order to produce a dirtier one, oil.

 Map of Utah with red markings showing oil sands,  blue markings showing oil shale
Utah has large deposits of oil shale and more oil sand than Alberta. But water shortages block major exploitation of either source of heavy oil.

To restrain global warming, Alberta's provincial government has imposed a one-time, 12 percent reduction in amount of greenhouse gas produced per unit of output at large industrial operations, including the oil sands. According to Chris Bourdeau, in the communications section of Alberta Environment, "Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America -- province or state -- to have a regulatory system in place that creates mandatory emission reductions. We got the law on the books, had the first trial compliance period [in the first half of 2008], and are creating emissions reductions."

Each year, companies that cannot meet the requirement will have to purchase offsets to store carbon in Alberta's forests or farms.

Volume of tailings produced by processing 1 m3 of bitumen:
6 m3

Number of times more capital intensive extracting oil from tar sands
is compared with conventional oil:

Percentage of earth's recoverable natural bitumen
occurring in North America:

Source (items 1&2): Unconventional Oil: Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel, WWF Report, Leaton, James, 2008; (item 3) CRS Report to Congress: North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future, Humphries, Marc, updated January 17, 2008.

Energy security

Having the world's number two oil country just across the world's longest undefended border from the world's number one gas guzzler does sound like a benign coincidence, and the oil industry is playing the energy security card to gather support for its expansion efforts. But author Andrew Nikiforuk (see #3 in the bibliography) says it's a mistake to invest in tar sands at the expense of more benign sources of energy. "Oil-gas companies make the argument that it's really important for energy security for the United States, but this is the world's most expensive oil; crude oil has to be $60 to $80 a barrel before tar sands makes sense. Can the United States afford to be addicted to a product that is so capital intensive, and two or three times as carbon intensive as conventional oil?"

According to the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory, making oil from the oil sands releases enough greenhouse gases to equal 122 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while U.S. light crude produces about 23 kilograms, and Middle-Eastern sources even less.

Greenhouse gases emissions (in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per barrel of crude oil extracted.

Bar chart showing large comparative amount of greenhouse gas emissions for oil from oil sands
National Energy Technology Laboratory (see p. 12 in #2 in the bibliography).
Oil sands make more greenhouse gas production than almost any other source of oil to the United States. (Dotted line shows overall average at U.S. refineries in 2005.)
Massive factory for refining oil with a large smoke stack, background is green rural area
The "upgrader" at Suncor's oil sands operation converts bitumen into synthetic crude oil that can flow through pipelines.

The oil-sand industry has unquestionably been a factor in Canada's failure to meet its greenhouse-gas reduction obligation under the Kyoto Protocol, and if the movement toward controlling greenhouse gases continues, oil-sand investments will prove risky indeed, Nikiforuk predicts. "At some point, the U.S. will get serious about climate change, the world will put a price on carbon, and that will restrain the development of tar sands. ... The only security the project has provided is for oil-gas companies that want to remain in the oil business, as opposed to the energy business."

Here's the question, just for perspective: If we are already relying on such an expensive source of oil, is that a harbinger of the end of oil?

Can the ecological damage be reversed after the oil sands are mined?


Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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