Monday, February 14, 2011

Energy and the Tar Sands of Alberta. A Review from the Vermilon River.

Initially I want to make a point about Boom and I. We have no wish to become activists. In fact we would prefer to live out our lives simply taking wildlife photos, publishing the blog , pursuing the other interests that we have, and generally becoming better at those things that interest us. I often say that it's a good thing that we're retired because we don't have a lot of time available to do a job. Nor do I have to worry about descendants because I don't have any.

Therefore the environmental state of the world shouldn't bother me any more. But damn it does!! I don't know if my discontent with the direction things are going comes from a conscience,or the constant living in a re-generating forest that was initially and utterly destroyed by mining, and is constantly under attack from the curse of abundant natural resources and greed.

 Right this moment the Government of Ontario is holding hearings initiated by Vale, the old International Nickle Co., to give Vale an extension on clean air changes to meet a series of new requirements. The inquiry members will probably give them the extension based on their study of other regions in the world. I have never heard such nonsense. The other regions are subsistence countries that regularly operate unsafe and high polluting mines.

But I'm not writing about hard rock mining, I want to talk about OIL and in particular the The Alberta Tar Sands. And by default energy also. I find it as hard as you do to get a handle on energy today.

 The Economy and Governments:

So let's make it simple. Our world wide governments would have us believe the economy is something akin to mother nature, a sort of force (think star wars). But that 's not true. Our industrial economy is a 19th century thing based on cheap energy as British historians are now quick to point out. That has lots of implications, but what it really means is that we're going to pass through another stage and develop a new form of an economy, which likely will be neither global or consumer oriented.

Our thinking has become so turgid that we permit politicians, whose primarily concern is themselves ,and are devoted to the extremely short term, to keep things the same so that they can carry on. The same factories, the same means of transportation, the gas engine, the pork barrel. the lobbyists etc.

The ruling of the US Supreme Court that permits full funding of political campaigns by corporations in the US, and in effect makes the corporation a citizen with more than one vote, because of the money they have, complicates the story, because it allows untruths to be readily disseminated. And industry uses money to fund their kind of science, in short to buy scientists and spin doctors who can and do provide the media with their corrupted view.The right wing GOP would not be such a concern without the Supreme Court ruling. They would just be another group of nutcases. The same exists in Canada, but to a more limited extent with The Conservatives who have a wing that are just a little right of Attila the Hun. Harper is part of that group, but is impeded by his minority position.

But the base of that 19th century economy is Oil and we've passed peak petroleum world wide. That means that our DEMAND outstrips SUPPLY, and demand continues to grow, by about 4 % last year, because we are a consumer oriented society, and no one has the courage to tell us that we've first got to conserve and then we're going to have to change. Change not only hurts but it makes demands on us, the little people to approve and make those changes. It means we have to make the effort to read and understand so that we can approve the correct path and recognize the charlatans that would misled us. A pretty fair amount of misleading has been done already by those same charlatans, and unfortunately at the time we need help, we have a complete shortage of honest leaders.And we under funded independent, not industry sponsored, research at the university level, and under funded education at all levels as well as the reach of education to all levels of society.By doing this we deprived ourselves of intelligence we sadly need, and the elitist education we have has created something called the professional politician.

Also the burning of fossil fuels produces carbon, which means we're heating up our globe, which is destroying parts of the world, causing strange weather patterns, and contaminating our fresh water and our oceans.

So, another byproduct of our energy oriented economy is a water shortage in terms of quality and quantity. Water levels are low in the Great Lakes, and have been for sometime.

The Ogallala Great Plains aquifer is at a record low and contaminated from agricultural fertilizers, and pesticides which are of course made from petrochemicals.. The Ogallala aquifer underlies the mid -western states of S. Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado,Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. These, of course, are the bread basket, and stock raising states of the US. But they are all semi-arid, and irrigation is required for good crops. A new book has been written about this situation, and I heard the author interviewed on,another CBC radio program.

The initial study, which all the aquifer web sites use, was done in 1982 and raised recharge and contamination concerns then, BUT assumed the climate as fixed and friendly, not changing in a negative way. The other thing he, the author, pointed out was that some of the states want to increase withdrawals, and the supply is simply not there. The author, mentioned in the interview above, said that our system of corporations endowing scientists encourages the buying of scientists, and went on to outline how that occurs. But all you have to remember are the Tobacco companies' studies that proved smoking did not cause cancer. And the attacks of the right on global warming by their bought scientists.

The Alberta Tar sands are on top of the Athabasca aquifer, a huge clean water source that feeds the Artic ocean via the Athabasca River i.e., the river runs north. At the moment, it is not oil contaminated and is full.

The Tar Sands
The tar sands are located in Northern Alberta ,and all told ,are about the size of the State of Florida. On the surface the area is muskeg and water with the tar sand, a gloppy tar, sandwiched in between the surface and a layer of clay, underneath which is the aquifer. It is the largest oil reserve in the world. Currently, the main extraction method is by open pit mining destroying the muskeg which can never be replaced. Using this method 1 cubic metre of oil mined requires 2-4.5 cubic metres of water. For Americans a metre is 39 inches so say a metre for fast work is equal to a yard. The water is contaminated and is stored in tailing ponds which you will have heard of  in the news because ducks land there, and end up coated in a thick oil. It takes 1200 cubic feet of natural gas to produce about 6000 cubic metres of heavy sour crude. Very roughly, the gain on potential energy makes the process economically viable, although it does not factor in the water and the fact that the crude is not energy until it is refined in a conventional refinery which uses energy and water again.So remember the ratio is some what facile. As surface tar sand is used up, a steam extraction method is used, which oil companies claim uses less water. The risk here is that it is an invasive exercise and may break through the clay shield and introduce tar sand into the aquifer.

Just a note. The Oil Spill in the gulf was light sweet crude. Not to undermine the enormity of that spill, but we're talking heavy sour crude here; hence the name dirty oil.

The Conventional Refining Process
Crude oil is made into products by a process of distillation using steam. The distilling process produces the various products: Gaseous fuels such as propane; liquid fuels eg aviation fuels; lubricants such as machine oil and greases;wax or paraffin used in the meat industry; sulphuric acid or sulphur;tar for roofing; asphalt for roads, and petrochemical feed stock for plastics, fertilizer or pesticides.

The various product cuts of the barrel can be altered by chemical processing called cracking, unification, and alteration. This just means the carbon chain is lenghtened or shorten or re-combined to form an other product. For instance gasoline is cracked to produce a higher octane fuel to prevent knocking in a car engine.

All of the sites mention the carbon emissions, the use of water and contaminated tailing ponds, but none quote numbers on the emissions of a typical refinery.

The tar sands account currently for 3.4 % of Canada's carbon emissions, and Canada is the 8th largest carbon emitter in the world. All this will grow, because countries like China and Norway want tar sands oil. So, typical refineries add to the emission numbers that can be credited to petroleum. In addition chemical processes allow the product bands to be changed, but to get rid of say the petrochemical feed stocks because petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides account for the aquifer contamination. And to get rid of the plastic feed stocks, because we cannot even use the re-cycled plastic we have now would raise the price of the gasoline because more chemical processes would have to be used. This will raise the cost of fuels which will of course place more pressure on an outmoded economy. In effect the rising price of oil is destroying the consumer economy anyway, and will eventually force us to set priorities on our use of energy.

I've tried to lay out the problem to you in simple terms and now I urge you spend 45 minutes of your time watching a CBC TV Video on the contamination problems in the the tar sands narrated by David Suzuki, scientist and famous ecologist as part of his nature program called the Nature of Things. You're probably seeing the last in the series but you can buy the tapes for your own viewing. CBC is our public broadcasting company. The tape is about 45 minutes long and unfortunately has ads in it.

So what are you going to see?

You're going to see the documentary of a campaign waged against the Alberta Government dealing with contamination in the tar sands. The campaign started out with the local aboriginal band showing high and rare cancer incidences and fish caught in the lake and river that have strange growths and tumours.

 The local medical doctor was discredited by the Alberta Health department until he was forced to leave.

You're going to see a courageous, experienced research scientist from the University of Calgary refute provincial claims carried out by the companies themselves, that the contamination in the Athabasca is just some natural seepage.

You're going to see up close the hell that is the Alberta Tar Sands. You're going to see James Cameron the director of Avatar throw in to help out the local aboriginal bands.

As asides you're going to see a US senator, who you will recognize,  publicly endorse the tar sands. You're going to see a US ( Retired ?) admiral tell you the tar sands are necessary for the defense of America. Maybe he thinks we'll use sling shots when the cost of oil is so high that you're going to have to use it on a priority basis.You're going to see some interviews with Americans that don't even know where the tar sands are. You're going to see Hilary Clinton say that you can use the dirty oil of the Saudis or of the Canadians.Remember Saudi oil is at peak now, and the Emirates will run out in the next few years..

Unless you see the earlier portions you're not going to see Premier of Alberta in Washington with his environment minister talking to your government representatives. Many of whom you will recognize.

You're going to see a chief of the local band talk to the state owned oil company of Norway which is investing in the tar sands because North Sea oil is giving out. Norway will shortly be using dirty oil while claiming to be a green country. Take a look at the faces of the company representatives.

You're probably going to feel like me that the technology of the tar sands is in its infancy. But we have no choice. That is the fault of our politicians. We desperately need independent research on alternate energy, current oil technology, and viable conservation plans that curtail our consumer economy while taking into consideration the displacement of workers. We need to expand independent research at our universities, and we need to improve and expand our primary and secondary education reach so that we tap the brains of our youth. Of course funding is a problem. But I can think of ways of redirecting current funds. Can you? Be hard now they're your children.

You can watch the oil series @ Click on The Tipping Point. The Age of The Oil Sands. If this link changes just google the Nature of things. The presentation is about 45 minutes long.

Other sources: I'm not going to list the sources as if I were writing an essay, but I'm going to tell you how to get there. I used Wikipedia for information on The Oil Sands and on Refining. I used How Stuff Works on Refining also as it is more technical and has some good illustrations. I used The Iowa State and the Emporia University site on the US Aquifer and the author who was interviewed  by Michael Enright on his CBC Radio Program. I used information out of the TV show itself. For the latter you'll have to search CBC past radio show list. For the former just google the subject and they'll all show up.


  1. Like you, I don't have a dog in this fight. Our only grandchild is the end of our line and he has not ability to understand what is being lost.
    I care, though, I worry for the future of the grandchildren of others and all of the creatures that inhabit the earth.
    Reader Wil has on her blog today a view of the world before electricity, and asking the question "do we need all of this?".
    My observation is are there too many of us? Is it possible to solve our energy issues when there are so many people sharing the Earth?
    I will be gone long before the bill comes due for our lack of foresight and government leadership.

  2. Great information in this post, Gary. The Tar Sands scare the daylights out of me! Sadly, there is no way David Suzuki is going to convince most people in power that they need to change their thinking about energy. How they can deny the truth is beyond my comprehension.

  3. A well thought out and researched post, Gary. I, too, have no dog in this fight, as I have no children. And, I'm somewhat pessimistic, I fear, that anything constructive will be done to stop the rape of the earth for oil. We've known about this problem for at least two generations, and have done nothing. By 2100, I fear that those alive will be living in a far different and sadder world.

  4. We all have a stake in this. Unfortunately, I fear we'll have to get to massive crisis before a critical mass Will join to make change and adapt. Plus government and media Will have to crumble. What just occurred in Egypt should provide people of the world with a peaceful example to change.
    Great post!!!!

  5. Way to go, Gary. Well said. Nobody listens to me, but they might listen to you. Don't know why people without grandchildren are quick to respond here, but I'm another one. However, my husband has grandchildren, and I have grandnephews and a grandniece, and I care a great deal about the world we are leaving them.
    By the way, beautiful photo of Boom. He's a gorgeous dog.
    -- K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  6. Great blog, beleif is what we need, hang onto it, it might grow.

  7. We've seen it with GM, we've seen it with Avandia, and Terfenadine/Seldane, we've seen it with foodstuffs....we can't win.
    Half a century ago ( 50 years!!!) Jane Dunlap, a.k.a. Adele Davis, pointed out how we are being robbed of important nutrients by food companies that replace innate vitamins with useless and damaging added vitamins.
    Half a century ago Rachel Carson had her eloquent say.
    Fifty years later little has changed and these brave authors were villified by the authorities.
    Jane Dunlap's books were banned from libraries would you believe.

    We haven't learned to choose our leaders wisely in all that time.

    I for one am losing heart, but I greatly applaud what you are saying, and how you say it.

  8. I came to your blog to read the World Bird Post but ended up reading this one as well. When will we all wake up to the fact that once we have polluted our environment it's gone - and so eventually will we be! I read with interest about the Tar Sands. Out here in Australia the latest disaster waiting to happen is concerned with Coal Seam Gas extraction. It is proposed for prime farm land and nothing seems to be able to stop the mining interests concerned in it. The farmers just don't have enough money to make the politicians listen! I traveled out to Western Queensland last year and saw mile after mile of great farmland with notices put up by owners such as - "What do you want? Food or Gas?" The industry has the potential to destroy the water in the artesian basin which is the only guaranteed water in those western regions. I despair!!

  9. Gary, I too started out reading you WWB post and ended up with this. So depressing! I posted it to my Facebook and Twitter pages.

  10. Gary, first off thank you for your fine research and for posting this--I have been an activist for many years and feel that our cries fall on deaf ears--WE all have a stake in this-- it is ONE WORLD we live on--I have tried my entire adult voting life to chose candidates whom I thought would never vote against the enviornment only to be disappointed time and time I see a Fascist Government leading the charge and Big Business is calling the shots. WE should be using solar power NOW-we all should be using electic cars recharged by solar charging stations...but DUE to the $$$$ still sitting in the ground we arent! In 1909 WE had Electric Cars in this Country--
    Greed and as you stated the Nutzy Right "drill baby drill" attitudes are rampart in this land--MY solution in the article I just worte for Suite 101 is to Find out what MY carbon footprint is and CHANGE IT--image if we all Lowered our dependence on OIL--sales drop and we push forward into the future and way BYE BYE To our politicians as they grapple to catch up with us!! WE have to be the change and continue to fight the right!

  11. Hi Martha. Appreciate the comments and visit. I think population is a problem, but the population in Canada and most modern nations is declining. In Japan the population is declining so drastically that they will have to look for immigrants, which they have never done before.

  12. TO EGW. David Suzuki is acting as a popularizer, as I am here. We change government!! See my next post for Suzuki's success.

  13. Hi Louise. As I said to EGW We change government and I just want the "People" to stop consumerism while our brightest people help us adjust the economy so the change is the least painful.

  14. Thanks Gaelyn. We must manage the change as best we can. The We is the people and our best brains who are not owned by the oil companies etc.

  15. Hi Kay. The real heros are the Suzuki's of the world. We need to take what we learn and go after our polticians and I mean after them.

  16. Hi joco. I answered your post on my next post where I said that the cost of oil from the tar sands is rising and will mean that you can't afford to ship the DNA altered apple to me from South American or elsewhere.

  17. Hi Mick. All that as well as the changing weather pattern in Australia. I don't think NA receives enough news about the problems of Australia. Keep the info coming.

  18. Hi Hilke and thanks for the support.

  19. Hi Dixxe. Ypu're right the fight is constant.