Alberta's Black Gold

Tar Sands Prospects in Canada

by by Marcel Bertsch-Gout

There are places in Alberta, Canada, where dredged-up mud spans the horizon as far as the eye can see. Puddles of unidentified surface moisture nest in between black and grey  plateaus of earthly carnage. Welcome to the Alberta tar sands, an oil reserve that singlehandedly makes Alberta the third-largest oil despository in the world. According to Alberta Energy, its approximately 170 billion barrels of potential oil are topped by only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

It’s difficult for a casual observer to grasp such a huge volume and what environmental consequences would follow its extraction. That the country is willing to drop out of a covenant as respected as the Kyoto Protocol might signal that its fixation on oil booty is going a little too far. Canada left the international emissions limiting treaty in 2009 in anticipation of the greenhouse gas output that might come out of its tar sands. The move is indicative of a broader crisis of dwindling oil supplies. Private businesses are reaching into nooks and crannies to for fuels that were previously viewed as too expensive to obtain. Desperation has made the financial burden easier to swallow, though they are far dirtier and more destructive to extract and purify. The Alberta tar sands are a prime example of this. They are Canada’s very own ticking carbon bomb. And to fully grasp what’s at stake, it’s important to understand what exactly makes their extraction so environmentally destructive.

The tar sands underlie around 140,000 km2, or the size of Florida. This is 20 percent of Alberta, and extraction permission has been granted for 84,000 km2 of this, or 12 percent of Alberta. About 3,000 km2 of this land is draped in boreal forest, a mixture of coniferous vegetation and wetlands, and it is considered to be the largest intact forest on earth. Also falling within range of extraction territory is the Athabasca river and the territories of three indigenous tribes­—the Dene, Cree, and Metis.

The tar sands themselves are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. Bitumen is the oil component of the sands, the “black gold” that oil companies are after. But this bounty does not simply gush forth of its own accord; the Government of Alberta Department of Energy defines it as “a thick, sticky form of crude oil that is so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless it is heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons.” It cannot be easily recovered by pumping from a well, and instead has to be removed from sands using either open-pit mining (which is usually used for mining coal), or in situ methods.

According to the Pembina Institute, a non-profit environmental policy research group, open-pit has so far been responsible for 52 percent of the extraction of the Alberta tar sands. This type of extraction is destructive: it involves burrowing into the earth and removing “overburden” or any boreal forest, bedrock, and whatever else might be in the way of the oil. On average, open-pit mining requires clearing about six times as much area as in situ mining, or 9.4 hectares per barrel.

The second method, in situ, is responsible for 48 percent of the extraction thus far and consists of drilling multiple wells into deep oil sands deposits and then injecting high-pressure steam underground. This steam heats the bitumen so it can flow to a well and be pumped to the surface. Although in situ methods require less clearing, they emit two and a half times more greenhouse gases on average than open-pit techniques, or 91 kg-per-barrel. The vast majority of the tar sands have been leased for in situ extraction. Neither method is ideal, especially considering that, as Forbes reported, by the time bitumen is refined and delivered to gas stations, it has already accounted for two to three times as much greenhouse gas per gallon of fuel as gasoline refined from conventional crude oil.

All in all, according to Greenpeace, the tar sands have the potential to put out 420 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year by 2020. To put this into perspective, physicist Myles Allen of the University of Oxford in England predicts that the world can only afford to put one trillion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2050 to have any chance of restraining global warming below two degrees C, an increase almost universally considered by scientists to be the “point of no return.”

A source of fossil fuels with this much potential for environmental havoc has understandably caused much controversy within Canada. Canadian activists have managed thus far to bar the creation of a pipeline within Canada that would carry extracted tar sands to international waters, eliciting an open-letter response from Canada’s Federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, in which he complains of “radical groups” seeking “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” The Canadian opposition makes the prospect of piping the tar sands down to Texas refineries where it can be shipped out onto the gulf or consumed by the US— the best hope for bringing the product to hungry Asian markets. But first, the State Department must give its approval, and the State Department is deferring the decision to President Obama, giving him the unique opportunity to make a momentous, unilateral decision on a major environmental issue. In his speech at the February 17 Keystone XL protest, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune drove this point home when he insisted, “President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built.”

Thus far, Obama has twice thwarted the completion of the pipeline, refusing to capitulate to the more hasty decision-making processes of the Republicans on the grounds that all environmental impacts needed to be considered. In particular, Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer—one of the world’s largest—was endangered by the previously suggested plans.

Republicans have in turn attacked Obama, claiming that he is denying jobs to eager, hard-working Americans. Republican estimates have ranged from 7,000 to 100,000 total potential jobs. Yet Bloomberg reports that Robert Jones, the Vice President of the company attempting to build the pipeline, TransCanada, claims that permanent jobs would be “in the hundreds, certainly not in the thousands,” and while TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard estimates 13,000 temporary construction jobs, the US State Department estimates 5,000 to 6,000, and Cornell Global Labor Institute School of Industrial and Labor Relations puts estimates at 2,500 to 4,600. Despite the uncertain numbers, the political turmoil is about more than just jobs.

The issue of energy security and independence from OPEC still looms large for both Republicans and Democrats. Both sides are wary of the grip Saudi Arabia and Venezuela will have over American energy. Professor Dawn King of Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies weighed in on the effects of Venezuela’s recent turmoil, saying “Chavez’s death might be the only thing that could offset [the completion of the pipeline].” A US-friendly Venezuelan leader could make rejecting the Keystone XL less of an energy security risk. There is also the fear of upsetting relations with Canada, seeing as staunchly conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is already smarting over Obama’s two rejections.

Realistically, the Alberta tar sands will continue to be extracted at some level regardless of whether or not Obama lets the State Department allow the pipeline to cross the Canada-US border. There are too many countries salivating over this oil and there are intra-Canadian pipelines that may eventually succeed in leading out to international waters. Unless environmental movements muster the support they need, the carbon ticking time bomb will most likely make its way out of the ground, leaving a trail of greenhouse gases as it goes. It’s only a matter of who, when, and how quickly.

MARCEL BERTSCH-GOUT B’13.5 keeps it low-energy.