Canadian Oil Sands

Posted on March 1, 2009  Comments (5)

Canadian oil sands sitePhotograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic

Canadian Oil Boom

To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles.

The Alberta government estimates that the province’s three main oil sands deposits, of which the Athabasca one is the largest, contain 173 billion barrels of oil that are economically recoverable today. “The size of that, on the world stageā€”it’s massive,” says Rick George, CEO of Suncor, which opened the first mine on the Athabasca River in 1967. In 2003, when the Oil & Gas Journal added the Alberta oil sands to its list of proven reserves, it immediately propelled Canada to second place, behind Saudi Arabia, among oil-producing nations. The proven reserves in the oil sands are eight times those of the entire U.S. “And that number will do nothing but go up,” says George. The Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board estimates that more than 300 billion barrels may one day be recoverable from the oil sands; it puts the total size of the deposit at 1.7 trillion barrels.

But the free market does not consider the effects of the mines on the river or the forest, or on the people who live there, unless it is forced to. Nor, left to itself, will it consider the effects of the oil sands on climate. Jim Boucher has collaborated with the oil sands industry in order to build a new economy for his people, to replace the one they lost, to provide a new future for kids who no longer hunt ptarmigan in the moonlight. But he is aware of the trade-offs. “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.

This is a good article by National Geographic. We need energy. We also need to protect the environment. The trade-offs societies decide to make are often not easy. But open discussion of the issues is important.

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5 Responses to “Canadian Oil Sands”

  1. Ron
    March 5th, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    The whole tar sands project is not financially viable at this moment. This is basically around $90/barrel oil. Its pretty expensive to get it out of the ground. I think it will be on hold until there is better cash flow and the price of oil goes up.

  2. Oil Sands « Adventures in Inventive Stuff to Create Things of Value
    April 28th, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    […] Canadian Oil Sands Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic […]

  3. mok
    May 16th, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    the older I become, the more important I feel our impact on the earth must be …

  4. Russell Davison
    January 3rd, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    Hello John,

    You’ll be pleased to know that this project has been going on now for more than 50 years and never really got off the ground. As your first commenter quite rightly says, oil needed to be greater than $90/barrel for the project to be economically viable in 2009. The figure is now raised to greater than $120/barrel because the Alberta government has recently introduced legislation that limits air/water pollution during the extraction process. These demanding laws dictate that that conventional energy conversion methods cannot be used and, instead, new (unproven) technologies like oxy-firing and carbon capture must be used.

  5. jeeaar
    March 10th, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    As an alberta citizen I can assure you that the oil sands are extremely viable, and have been producing oil/jobs for quite some time, at an incredible rate.

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