What are the Tar Sands? A brief overview.
Oil Corporations have recently tried to rebrand tar sands into “oil sands”. Tar sands is a better name, simply because even after the process of tar sand extraction, separation, ‘upgrading’, shipping, refining, and selling it as a petroleum product is completed at no stage throughout is it a regular “oil”, but once upgraded it is a synthetic oil. It becomes through this long process developed into a synthetic crude oil which can be expensively converted into a petroleum or other oil-based derivative of energy. Tar is used to seal your roof and similar structures in the world today; tar sands that ooze right onto the surface were used by local indigenous nations many centuries ago to patch their canoes and prevent leaks.
Lacking technology but seeing the potential, the government of Alberta started experimenting with extraction ideas in the 1920’s. Starting in the 1960’s, The Pew family-owned company Sun Oil began conducting research into how to extract the hydrocarbon energy in the tar sands and turn it into a mock oil. They then began “The Great Canadian Oil Sands Project” operating near Fort McMurray in 1967. The Great Canadian Oil Sands Project would later become a corporation now well-known as Suncor, after Sun Oil became today's Sunoco. Suncor bought all of the remaining Sunoco shares from the plants in Alberta in 1995, leaving Sunoco officially outside of Alberta's Tar Sands. Sunoco then could focus on setting up shop in the lower 48 states as the primary hub for refinement of this mock oil. Today, though “officially” not a part of the actual process in Alberta, Sunoco does vast amounts of the refining of the heavy synthetic crude from around Fort McMurray, in the Mid-West and soon to have massive new volumes of tar sand crude refined near Pennsylvania. The Pew family Charitable Trusts were originated and continue to run with money from Sunoco and the Pew Family. The Pew Foundations today flow funding through social and environmental organizations, continuing to protect their original investments to the tune of hundreds of millions a year through acting as a "drag anchor" on organizations they bankroll.
The Mention of those pipeline systems is only scratching the surface. Why? Energy is required in massive amounts to produce useable petrol. Energy in the massive amounts required (beyond the 0.6 billion cubic feet a day [bcfd] of natural gas currently consumed) can not even begin to be provided locally. That energy has many places it can come from. Almost all of them are untouched wilderness areas, or the construction of massive new nuclear plants across northern Alberta. Why all this energy? Because this is not simply “oil” we are talking about. We are talking about a high end product that serves to supplant oil, oil that is starting to run out around the globe.
What is common to both tar sand plants and regular oil fields is the construction of refineries, if old ones from dried up wells are not easily accessible. The same is true of delivery systems. What is not the case here is that the refineries are not typical, and there are several refining stages. First, huge chunks of earth weighing 200 tonnes are taken at a time. It takes four tonnes of earth to produce one measly barrel of synthetic crude. How this process works is roughly the world’s largest vats (slurries)—spinning, boiling and separating the “good” guck (bitumen) from the “bad” earth (overburden). That means every tree is cut and every lichen, bit of soil and more is dumped in useless “overburden” areas. All of the life at every stage is waste product, and dumped—enough to fill the largest sports stadium every two days. None of this has yet to be certified as reclaimed. It is the closest thing to walking on the surface of Mars one can experience.
I mentioned water. For each barrel of oil, along with four tonnes of earth, approximately four barrels of water are required. Permanently toxic tailings ponds now litter Alberta, visible from outer space. I’m not done. The process takes energy, usually relatively clean burning natural gas (composting caviar to grow weeds, in essence). This and other forms of energy used currently amount to enough greenhouse gas emissions for each single barrel to drive a standard vehicle roughly 300 kilometers. But you can’t drive on this petroleum yet— it is still just a heavy bitumen waiting to get transported to a refinery that can work with this particular toxic brew, creating mock crude out of it. Most of those are long distances away and the crude product you have now still won’t flow in a pipeline system. So you have to construct two massive pipeline systems. One to bring another toxic substance, called “diluent” (no, that is not a typo) which is akin to Kerosene. So that stuff has to be pulled out of the earth somewhere else and a system to bring it to Alberta must be constructed across massive swaths of land (or shipping lanes through the Pacific Ocean from countries such as Russia). Then the bitumen from the earth is mixed with the diluent and placed in new pipelines that ship to the ‘special’ refineries. You also need to find sources of the natural gas to pipe into Alberta. Or, to avoid that, one could build approximately 20 nuclear power plants to provide the steam and hydrogen needed to get up to a production level of 3 million barrels of oil every day (Gas pipelines can be reduced, not avoided; there is nowhere near enough energy in the region as is to maintain current levels of synthetic oil production and construct nuclear plants without new sources of energy to do so. Another way to put it: One will need to build pipelines into the region to supply the natural gas for energy necessary to build nuclear plants— reactors that are supposedly to prevent the reliance on natural gas.) All those pipes described, and yet still none mentioned to actually move the heavy crude to a refinery that can then produce a car-operating gasoline. In simple production each single barrel gives off an average of 80 kg’s of greenhouse gasses in production as a constant. Can you say “climate change on steroids”?
The biggest projects being proposed involve lands from Alaska, the Arctic Ocean along Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories and possibly over the ocean itself, across northern British Columbia including a cancellation of an over thirty year shipping moratorium along the BC Coast and Inside Passage. This also includes taking the pipeline systems in southern and central Alberta and turning them around, in order to provide the massive amounts of energy needs for the voracious tar sands. The pipelines to get the oil to refineries in the US will also include (to name just a few) huge new pipelines to Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Ontario, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. These are only the announced ones; These plans do not equal the recently leaked joint American-Canadian government plans to push for as much as 5 million barrels of this “oil” every day. Do the math for water, greenhouse gas emissions, lost tonnes of earth and forests in all directions from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. We still haven’t got petroleum you can put in your car. This final total will see the consumption of 25% of the United States oil needs within less than a decade (currently, the US uses just over 20 mbpd of oil, that will go up to roughly 24 in a decade). This “plan” is because the planet is running out of oil globally, and the remaining easy oil is proving harder for the US Army to take directly from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
North America has no plan nor do those in power seem to be looking for one for the peaking of oil globally. Instead, this is the “plan”, the single largest “gigaproject” in human history—without even the exception of the Pyramids of Egypt, Panama Canal, Great Wall of China and the Three Gorges Dam combined—a temporary plan to try to avoid peak oil, damn the costs. The costs are not merely more greenhouse gasses, but their rapidly accelerating ascension into the stratosphere. While the world clamours for less greenhouse gasses, the tar sands and other “alternate” sources of “oil” are the only option—and yet they are only a temporary placebo. The end of oil will come, likely in our near lifetimes. The question is: what kind of an earth will we be looking at, and will it be inhabitable? Perhaps humanity needs to see the two options honestly: accept peak oil, use remaining “easy oil” reserves to help make the painful transition out of petrol-led systems or reap climate change with a vengeance that will make Katrina look like an early fall rainshower.