tar sands

On this page…

  1. Tar Sands — Wikipedia
  2. Tar sands by 2025? 4 to 5 mbd, MAX!
  3. Bloomberg on costs of deep water oil for comparison
  4. Worldwatch on Shale oil

1. Tar sands — Wikipedia

….Technically speaking, the bitumen is neither oil nor tar, but a semisolid, degraded form of oil that does not flow at normal temperatures and pressures, making it difficult and expensive to extract. Tar sands are mined to extract the oil-like bitumen, which is then converted into synthetic crude oil or refined directly into petroleum products by specialized refineries. Most refineries can only handle about 10-15 per cent of their input coming from these heavy oil sources.

Crude oil is extracted by drilling wells, but oil sand deposits are strip mined or made to flow into producing wells by in situ techniques which reduce the bitumen’s viscosity with steam and/or solvents. This latter process uses a great deal of water, which is challenging as the largest deposits are in cold desert areas where, for much of the year, surface water is only present in the form of ice.

2. Tar Sands by 2025? 4 to 5 mbd, MAX!

This next graph is from the horses mouth, the 2010-2025 Canadian Crude Oil Forecast and Market Outlook published June 2010.

Richard Heinberg’s open letter raises other issues and challenges

The all-important question is, how much oil can the industry pump every day (that is, at what rate can that oil be produced)? That’s what the debate over Peak Oil is all about—not reserves or amounts ultimately recoverable, but flow rates. When will the flow rate that the industry can possibly attain reach its maximum?

With prices high, you say, hundreds of billions of barrels of oil from the tar sands of Canada and from the heavy-oil fields of Venezuela become economical to produce. Right again, though this is not conventional oil we’re talking about, but materials that have to be transformed into synthetic petroleum using energy-intensive processes. But again, the real question is, at what rates? Canada is currently extracting a million barrels a day from the tar sands; Venezuela is pulling a little over half that amount from the Orinoco belt. These numbers are expected to climb—and then level off. Why? Because the process of producing synthetic oil from these low-quality hydrocarbon sources is constrained by physical factors that just do not respond much to economic stimuli. Canada needs lots of water and natural gas to make oil from the tar sands, and both are in short supply. The best published forecasts say that, regardless of the price of oil, flow rates there will max out at about three to five million barrels per day by 2025—a generous amount in terms of the benefit to Canada’s economy. But this is not nearly enough fuel to satisfy the US habit of over 20 million barrels per day—and crucially, it’s not enough to make up for expected declines from the world’s giant and supergiant conventional oilfields once the latter begin their inevitable declines—as they are doing now. There are only about a hundred of those big fields that, collectively, yield roughly half the oil extracted today. Nearly all are old (found in the 1940s through the 1970s), and we’re seeing that, with the newer water-flooding recovery methods, when decline comes it can hit unexpectedly and with catastrophic swiftness—as in the Yibal field in Oman, which peaked at 250,000 barrels per day in 1997 and is already down to less than 80,000 b/d.

The situation in Venezuela is similar to that in Canada.

All of these questions have been discussed, dissected, analyzed, and graphed endlessly. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to build nuclear reactors to cook the tar sands—but the practical challenges in that case are prohibitive, as the tar sands are geographically extensive and each nuclear plant would be able to heat only a limited area; that means lots of expensive nuke plants with useful lifetimes limited by the amount of bitumen within easy reach. It’s already expensive to make oil from bitumen; adding hundreds of billions of dollars in nuke plants and the exercise quickly becomes an investor’s worst nightmare.

I could provide more details, but what’s the point? We are breaking no new ground here. Every serious analyst I know who is predicting a global oil production peak between now and, say, 2012 is thoroughly familiar with the standard free-market argument about higher prices stimulating more production, and with the published reserves figures for tar sands, heavy oil, shale oil, and so on. All of this has long ago been taken into account.
What I do know is that the specific facts and arguments you have brought up in order to “debunk” the Peak Oil thesis are not up to your usual journalistic standards.

Worldwatch on Tar Sands (August 2007) says:

The tar sands deposits underlie more than 140,000 square kilometers of relatively pristine Canadian boreal forest, which accounts for one-quarter of the world’s remaining intact forests. If currently planned tar sands development projects go forward, approximately 3,000 square kilometers of boreal forest could be cleared, drained, and strip-mined. The remaining 137,000 square kilometers stand to be compromised by the extraction process used for deeper reserves, which requires injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.

The mining of the tar sands is also diverting streams and rivers and draining large amounts of water from the nearby Athabasca River, the primary source of the water used in the separation process. Tar sands mining operations withdraw 2 to 4.5 barrels of fresh water from the river for every barrel of oil produced, threatening the sustainability of local subsistence and commercial fisheries and the habitat of a wide variety of wildlife.

The United States currently receives 99 percent of Canadian crude oil exports. While this accounted for only 7 percent of U.S. daily consumption in 2005, tar sands production and development has grown dramatically in recent years, and more than $100 billion of investment has been announced for development over the next decade.

Other tar sands references

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett — March 2007 —US House of Reps

3. Bloomberg (April 2007) on costs of deep water

Shell and Total oil are announcing the end of cheap oil, and the deep sea stuff is considerably more expensive. I thought I’d just enter this here to illustrate how not even all conventional oils are the same to produce, let alone the tar sands.

Paris-based Total said today it would be pumping 240,000 barrels a day by mid-April from a new field in Angola called Dalia, about 135 kilometers (83 miles) offshore in waters as deep as 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile down.

Developing that field cost $4.6 billion, an increase of 53 percent from the $3 billion spent to develop another offshore Angolan field called Girassol, de Margerie said today. By comparison, costs for Usan, a 160,000-barrel-a-day project off Nigeria, will cost $7 billion, he said.

4. Shale oil
Worldwatch — Plenty of Shale, Plenty of Problems (June 2007)

Oil shale—sedimentary rock that contains a petroleum-like substance called kerogen—is found in great quantities in the western United States, particularly in the Green River Basin spanning portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. According to Bobby McEnaney, a public lands advocate at NRDC, there are two main ways to extract the kerogen from the shale. The first, an “ex-situ” process, involves mining the shale in an open-pit or underground mine, crushing it, and then distilling it at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The other method, which remains largely unproven, is an “in-situ” process whereby heaters are placed in the ground to liquefy the kerogen in place. The liquid can then be extracted using current oil well technology and sent to a refinery to be processed.The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires the Department of Interior to promote research and development of oil shale resources and to establish a commercial leasing program, accelerating the potential commercialization of the fuel source. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has already set aside three separate 160-acre (65 hectare) tracts of land for research activities, and plans to hold a sale of commercial oil shale leases by the end of 2008. However, data from any research projects—including information on the environmental and social impacts and economic viability of the resource—would likely not be available by the time the commercial leases are offered.

Studies conducted so far suggest that oil shale extraction would adversely affect the air, water, and land around proposed projects. The distillation process would release toxic pollutants into the air—including sulfur dioxide, lead, and nitrogen oxides. Existing BLM analysis indicates that current oil shale research projects would reduce visibility by more than 10 percent for several weeks a year. And NRDC states that in a well-to-wheel comparison, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil shale are close to double those from conventional crude, with most of them occurring during production. According to the Rand Corporation, producing 100,000 barrels of oil shale per day would emit some 10 million tons of GHGs.

The BLM reports that mining and distilling oil shale would require an estimated 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced—inputs that could reduce the annual flow of Colorado’s White River by as much as 8.2 percent. Residues that remain from an in-situ extraction process could also threaten water tables in the Green River Basin, the agency says.

NRDC notes that the infrastructure needed to develop oil shale would impose equally serious demands on local landscapes. The group warns that impressive arrays of wildlife would be displaced as land is set aside for oil shale development. And it says that while open pit mining would scar the land, in-situ extraction would require leveling the land and removing all vegetation.

In addition to the environmental impacts of oil shale, vast amounts of energy are required to support production. In Driving it Home, NRDC cites Rand Corporation estimates that generating 100,000 barrels of shale oil would require 1,200 megawatts of power—or the equivalent of a new power plant capable of serving a city of 500,000 people. Proponents of oil shale have a stated goal of producing one million barrels of the resource per day.

So far, large-scale oil shale projects have not yet been started in the United States, and the BLM is still drafting its environmental impact study. The public examination and comment period is scheduled to begin this summer. Unless oil shale development receives considerable government support, the industry is not expected to be economically viable. According to the Denver Post, the oil company Shell recently withdrew its application for a mining permit for an oil shale research and development lease, citing economic reasons.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

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