Production from Alberta, Canada’s “oil sands” is continuing to expand and with it comes an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and other negative impacts on the boreal forest environment.
“Oil sands” is the popular term used, but it’s a little misleading as it alludes to the extraction of oil to involve a filtering process – tar sands is a more accurate label.
In tar sands oil extraction, natural gas (and lots of it) is used to heat water to create the steam required to separate the bitumen from the sand. The bitumen then requires a great deal of further refining. It takes two to four tons of landscape to be dug up to extract a single barrel of oil and up to 4 barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of synthetic crude.
According to an entry on Wikipedia, around 1.0 – 1.25 gigajoules of energy is required to extract a barrel of bitumen from the tar sands and upgrade it to synthetic crude. The energy value of a barrel of synthetic crude is approximately 6 gigajoules – so up to 20% of a barrel of tar sands oil’s energy is in its production.
FuelEconomy.gov states only about 15% of the energy from the fuel we pour into our vehicles actually propels us forward and allows us to run accessories such as lights and air conditioning. The rest of the energy is lost to engine and driveline inefficiencies and idling.
Between the inefficiency of tar sands extraction and that of our cars and how we drive them, this synthetic crude oil comes at a huge environmental price vs. what is returned.
Environment Canada says the tar sands projects make up 5% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is pretty incredible considering all forms of activity that generate greenhouse gas emissions in the entire nation.
The following are some of the companies involved in Alberta’s tar sands oil production:
Alberta Oilsands Inc
Canadian Oil Sands Limited
ConocoPhillips Oil Sand Partnership II
Imperial Oil Resources
Mocal Energy Limited
Murphy Oil Company Ltd.,
Nexen Oil Sands Partnership
Petro-Canada Oil and Gas (Suncor Energy)
Royal Dutch Shell (Shell)
While its easy to point the finger and “tch tch” at Canada for this destruction, much of the demand for the tar sands oil is coming from elsewhere – the USA. If there was no demand, there would be no tar sands exploitation.
It was encouraging to read about two major green retailers (Whole Foods Market Ltd and Bed, Bath and Beyond) making moves to boycott tar sands oil sourced gas and more companies look set to follow.
While gas is a necessary evil in most of our lives for the time being, we can play our part in minimizing demand of tar sands oil by a) reducing the amount of gas we consume b) not buying gas from companies associated with tar sands oil extraction and c) letting the companies involved know our concerns and actions.
However, with so many gas brands around, you may need to contact the head office of the brand you usually buy and ask the pointed question:
“Is X gas/petrol in whole or in part produced from oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada?”.
..it’s a simple question with only two possible answers – yes or no. It’s probably safe to assume no response at all as meaning the latter as does long and convoluted answers that state neither.
Even if you’re not in a country where oil from Canada’s tar sands is exported, by taking these actions, it helps send a message to these companies that the whole world is watching and the pillaging of Alberta’s boreal forests is unacceptable.
Where things start getting very complex is all the other companies we buy products from who might be knowingly (but most likely unwittingly or don’t care either way) sourcing oil/gas for their operations from the tar sands. You could spend a lot time in enquiries, but focusing on the gas you use directly is a start.
Kudos to the two retailers for putting the tar sands back in the spotlight again! The news should hopefully encourage other retailers to do the same.
With all the subsidies and tax breaks fossil fuel companies still receive, it makes you wonder what could happen if electric vehicles and renewable energy were given the same level of support. Peak oil is no longer a fantasy or a maybe – it’s here; as is evident by the rush to squeeze it from Canada’s boreal forests.
Update February 15 : Bah! It seems now that Canada is looking to China and other Asian countries to take this tar sands oil if the US won’t; so on top of all the destruction, add to that transporting the stuff to far flung places. :(. C’mon Canada, you’re better than this!