Oil Sands Past Present & Future

 Every day ninety million barrels of oil are consumed around the world — enough to fill a kilometer-square bathtub fourteen meters deep. Every day. Most is burned by cars and trucks, but a lot goes into ammonia for fertilizers and still more is used to make plastics — things that civilization has come to rely upon. The world's appetite for oil is growing annually by a million barrels/day, but new oil fields are increasingly hard to find.

At first blush, the concept of Peak Oil seems easy to understand: that point in time when worldwide oil production begins to decline. But as always, the devil is in the details. Will new technologies allow engineers to squeeze more from an old oil field? How will explosive growth in emerging economies like China and India drive up the price of oil and encourage more exploration? Conversely, will those higher prices hinder other countries' economies and drive demand down elsewhere? Will oil producers accurately report the amount of oil that remains underground, held in reserve? All of these questions help determine the moment when we'll finally be forced to admit that we live in a world where there is less and less oil to go around. The concept of Peak Oil seems easy to comprehend, but people still argue about whether the moment has arrived.

Most of us grew up thinking that petroleum exploration meant going to Texas or Saudi Arabia, drilling a well, sticking in a straw, and sucking out the oil. Those days are waning and will soon be gone. If the moment of Peak Oil has yet to arrive, it's only because oil companies are now finding hydrocarbons in unconventional ways and in unlikely places. They are drilling beneath thousands of feet of ocean water, and are looking for heavy oil in South America. They have found sticky bitumen in Alberta — 1.7 trillion barrels of it. Experts estimate that 170 billion barrels might eventually be retrieved.

Bitumen? Think asphalt. Hard and black, sticky when the weather turns hot. Think polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons replete with sulphur and trace amounts arsenic, lead, mercury, vanadium, and selenium. You could say tar, like tar sands, but technically (and politically) you'd be incorrect. Tar is a residual product of coal combustion. These days the preferred term in public relations offices throughout Alberta is oil sands, not tar.

How did Alberta get so lucky? Think back to the Cretaceous Period when an ocean lapped against shores of the ancient Canadian Shield. The McMurray Formation was deposited here when river channels delivered their loads of sand and mud about a hundred million years ago. Later, as the Rocky Mountains began to rise off to the west, these sandstones and mudstones were tilted. Organic material that had been accumulating at the bottom of this ocean basin was slightly warmed and then slowly migrated up and to the east, into the porous McMurray Formation. Nestled amid the sand grains, bitumen had arrived.

First Nations Dene tribes along the Athabasca River had been caulking their canoes with bitumen for centuries before Robert Fitzsimmons built an extraction plant at Bitumount, Alberta in 1927. Fitzsimmons thought he might be able to wring oil from bitumen by injecting hot water into the McMurray Sandstone, but his money ran out and the wells ran dry. During the Second World War, Abasands Oil Company managed to process bitumen into usable petroleum products like gasoline before its facility burned down in 1945. An American company, Richfield Oil, wanted to explode nuclear bombs underground to shake bitumen loose, an idea tested and approved by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission but eventually rejected by Canadian authorities.

Over the next fifty years, techniques for bitumen extraction gradually improved. The oil industry and the scientific community both awakened to the fact that bitumen extraction is fraught with environmental challenges. Both in their ways are trying to deal with environmental and health issues. Engineers are trying to reduce the industry's massive carbon footprint. Also, First Nations and Métis people are trying to understand the changing shape of the boreal forest in which they have lived for centuries.

Mining activity has gradually increased but ultimately is limited by the availability of ore close to the surface — a sand box that might be less than 5000 square kilometers. But two things changed near the turn of the 21st century. New processes were developed for underground extraction that could reach ore bodies too deep to mine — first cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) and later, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). And, just as important, the benchmark price for a barrel of oil began to rise; by 2005 the price remained above the $40–50 / barrel that was needed to break even. Stimulated by these changes, greased by provincial and federal governments which enthusiastically embraced energy development, the oil sands industry took off and hasn’t looked back. By 2006 more than a million barrels a day were flowing from the Athabascan field. The government of Alberta now predicts that production will reach three million barrels a day by 2020 and perhaps five million by 2030. Only the sky seems to be the limit.

These now undeniable trends are reshaping Canada and are influencing the industrialized world. In the process, many tough questions are emerging from corporate boardrooms and hospital exam rooms, from the halls of government to coastal long houses. These questions deserve to be asked more widely while the answers still have the possibility of influencing decisions about how energy resources will be accessed, when, and by whom.

A tiny bitumen mine sits at PR Spring atop the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah. This is dry country and bitumen processing is a thirsty endeavor. Only one of many wells drilled have struck water, producing far less than the 126,000 gallons a day that U.S. Oil Sands says it needs to operate. The company would like to use orange peel extract to separate oil from the sandstone. Perhaps this mine will be just another flash in the Southwest’s pan of unconventional oil. But maybe not. Up to 30 billion recoverable barrels of oil are said to be sitting under this part of Utah, a temptation that may prove hard to resist. What can we in the United States learn from Canada’s experience with oil sands?

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