Tar sands mark peak oil

August 28, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In a passionate Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair (Aug. 17-18 at Ogle County Fairgrounds, Oregon, Ill.) presentation, award-winning Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk provided data to support his calling oil from tar sands of northeastern Alberta dirty oil.

Its use signals the arrival of peak oil, as the world’s cheapest and cleanest sources of oil have already been consumed and the industry has turned to dirtier and more costly sources.

It differs from conventional oil, which is pumped out of the earth as a liquid and shipped through pipelines to refineries. The tar sands of Alberta are a mixture of sand, water and oily bitumen, or a heavy tar-like substance. Similar deposits occur in California, Mexico and Venezuela.

The oily bitumen is too thick to be pumped from the ground, so it is mined. To produce one barrel of bitumen, 2 tons of earth and sand are excavated. The deeper deposits have steam injections to bring the bitumen to the surface. The boreal forest is destroyed in the process.

Producing a barrel of bitumen releases three times as many greenhouse gases as are released in producing a barrel of conventional oil. The daily consumption of natural gas by the industry could heat 6 million homes. Consideration is being given to replacing natural gas consumption with nuclear power to expand the production of the synthetic oil.

Three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River” are used to produce each barrel of bitumen. Ninety percent of the water ends up in what Nikiforuk calls the world’s largest deposits of toxic waste, adversely affecting the watershed.

Bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter and requires upgrading to refine it into synthetic crude. All the local refinery capacity is in use, so an increasing amount of diluted bitumen is being shipped via pipelines into the United States for refining. To ship it, it must be diluted, and the pressure has to be increased in the pipeline.

Nikiforuk indicates that currently 70 percent of the transportation fuel in the Midwest comes from the tar sands of Alberta. While we have benefited from relatively low fuel prices, the continued expansion of pipelines to coastal areas will allow the oil to reach global markets, increasing fuel costs to Midwestern consumers.

The Midwest has suffered the adverse effects of shipping diluted bitumen, also known as dilbit, from the tar sands. Well known to some are the lingering effects of the Enbridge pipeline break in July 2010, which spilled more than 1 million gallons of it into the Kalamazoo River.

The spilled dilbit was 70 percent bitumen and 30 percent diluents. The diluents evaporated, and the bitumen sank to the bottom of the river, where it is periodically removed. There is very little publicly available research about the impacts of such spills, and more spills are expected as shipping increases.

Nikiforuk sees bitumen development as unsustainable, undermining democracy and corrupting the political process through the lack of transparency. Its continued development for global markets is not inevitable, and its use should be redirected toward building a low-carbon economy. The transformation will require citizen effort.

Major sponsors of the fair are The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, The Rock River Times, Northern Public Radio, Ogle County, Clean Line Energy Partners and the Kickapoo Conservancy.

From the Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 2013, issue

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