Monday, June 22, 2009

Should You Worry About Oil Sands?

Gasoline prices have been going up in recent weeks, and one reason they haven't gone up more is oil sands in Canada. As Michael Levi, writing in the current issue of Slate, points out, not too long ago Canada took over from Saudi Arabia as the country supplying the most imported oil to the U. S. And a big factor in Canada's oil exports is their production of oil sands.

It turns out that under a large chunk of northeastern Alberta, Canada, the Athabasca oil sands deposit harbors the oil-sands equivalent of the rest of the world's conventional oil reserves combined. What are oil sands? Sometimes referred to as "bitumen," the hydrocarbons in oil sands are tar-like substances that are too thick to flow out of the formations they are found in, as conventional petroleum does. Instead, you have to dig the stuff out with conventional open-pit mining techniques and then process it to make what is called synthetic crude oil. From that point on, the stuff can be treated more or less like regular petroleum.

Because of the added complexity of extraction, oil sands have only recently been exploited commercially on a large scale, and they still form only a fraction of Canada's total oil output. (Venezuela also has a large oil-sands deposit, but the government of Venezuela is not as favorably disposed toward the U. S. as the Canadian government is, to say the least.) Oil sands have received some black environmental marks, both for the relatively large amount of greenhouse gases that result from producing a barrel of oil-sands petroleum compared to a barrel of conventional oil, and for the problems that used water and mine tailings cause.

So what is the right thing to do about oil sands? Do the environmental issues dominate and make us swear off them altogether? Or should we just arrange some very long-term contracts with Canadian produces and quit worrying about the shrinking oil reserves in the rest of the world?

As Levi points out, neither of these extreme alternatives is wise. While the production end of oil-sands operations does make more carbon dioxide, you still end up burning oil at the consumption end, so economies or conservation elsewhere in the system can make up for the additional burden at the production end. Pollution of water and destruction of land due to poor open-pit mining practices are concerns, but if I know our Canadian friends, they are on top of those issues and have found ways of dealing with them.

All the same, it would be the height of complacency to say along with the rich fool in the New Testament parable, "Soul, you have oil sands saved up for many years. Drive, drink, and be merry." I have said before that for reasons of national security, the U. S. ought to devise a long-term plan to move gradually and even profitably toward increased energy independence. With the global oil market the way it is, namely much like a pickup basketball game with no referee, we are taking chances with our economy by relying too much on unstable parts of the world for our energy supplies. Although some weird things go on in Canada, as a whole its government is a lot more reliable than, say, Iran's, so on balance it's a good thing that we are getting more oil from Canada than we get from Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries. However, the best outcome would be to move, deliberately and without serious damage to the economy, toward a situation where fossil fuels are gradually phased out in preference to an electricity-based energy economy, perhaps powered largely by nuclear plants. But that's just my opinion.

Nuclear has the dual advantage of not emitting any greenhouse gases and of using fuel that is not primarily found in politically unstable parts of the world. Nuclear plants use uranium, and some types can even produce more fuel than they consume. And it turns out that more than half of all the uranium produced in the world is mined in two countries: Canada and Australia, both of which we get along with pretty well.

The difficulty, as always, is how to implement such a plan in a democracy where short-term considerations tend to dominate political discussions. Somehow we can always agree to keep troops here or there for another few years, but we can't agree on a plan to reduce our dependence on oil so much that we wouldn't need to play global policeman so much. The new administration has made efforts in this direction, but with so many other irons in the fire, energy independence is going to take a back seat (to mix a few metaphors).

In the meantime, we can be grateful to our Canadian friends for developing oil sands in an environmentally responsible way. For the next few years we will need to buy oil from somewhere outside the U. S., and Canada looks like a nice place to get it from.

Sources: Michael Levi's article "Living on Canada's Oil" can be found in Slate at I also used material from the Wikipedia articles on oil sands and uranium.


  1. good post...but is U.S really dependant on oil...i heard they have shifted their eye on natural gas...???

  2. It's sad reading this article, first off especially when you're resources are taken from Wikipedia, where anyone can alter them, not reliable what so ever.

    Second, your "Canadian friends" have not found efficient ways of dealing with the pollution in the water and the destruction of the land. The deposits from the current oil sands in 4 months is the equivilent to a major oil spill that would be repeated annually if we continue this "ethical oil" mining. The oldest tailings dyke built by Suncor in 1965 has been leaking continually into the Athabasca River for more than 30 years. Fish within this river are turning up with deformities and tumours. Migratory ducks and birds landing in the toxic bitumen are being euthanized by the hundreds to thousands.
    You view Canada as a "nice plave to get it(oil) from", yet you don't realize the death and despair thats affecting people and animals living in and around the Athabasca River. The oil sands of Alberta contribute at least 13 proven toxic elements found in the Athabasca River which include arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium. The people of Fort Chipewyan, a downstream community of the Athabasca River, have high hydrocarbon exposure resulting in 3–7X higher rates of leukemia, lymphoma, biliary tract cancer, tissue sarcoma, among many others all which are linked to oil pollution from the oil sands.
    Now are you so grateful to your "Canadian friends" for the destruction of their environment to feed your fuel consumption?