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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Most Destructive Industrial Venture on Earth: The Canadian Oil Sands Pose Great Danger

by Dave Gabriele, citizen journalist

Common belief is that the Middle East is America's largest supplier of oil. In truth, Canada supplies more oil to the US than any other country, providing 19% of US foreign oil. About half of that oil comes from the single largest industrial project on Earth--the Canadian Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. The Oil Sands, comprised of the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake sites, contains approximately 170 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. This makes Canada the world's second largest source of oil, after Saudi Arabia.

As of 2006, the Oil Sands were producing over 1.1 million barrels of oil per day, or about 42% of Canada's total crude output. As the industry steadily grows, it is anticipated that production will reach 3 million barrels per day by 2020 and possibly even 5 million barrels per day by 2030.

This deposit of oil represents a great source of wealth for Canada, and especially for the United States, which prefers a stable source closer to home. However, this massive project, which encompasses operations from 49 companies, is literally the largest and most environmentally destructive endeavor of all time.

What are Oil Sands?

Geologists speculate that the oil sands formed millions of years ago from the remains of tiny creatures buried in the seabed of an ancient ocean that covered Alberta. Warm temperatures, combined with the slow accumulation of thick layers of silt, sand and pressure, continuously heated these remains and gradually converted them into the oil sands. The sands consist of a mixture of silica sand, minerals, clay, water and bitumen. Bitumen, a tar-like substance, is a super-heavy form of petroleum.

Environmental Concerns

The enormous process of extracting oil from the oil sands begins with cutting down large areas of boreal forest. So far, the industry has flattened about 389 square kilometers or 150 square miles. Concerns over rapid deforestation have environmentalists troubled.

Because bitumen is too thick and heavy to be pumped like conventional oil, it must be dug out of the ground in what closely resembles an open-pit mining operation. In order to get just one barrel of bitumen, workers need to first scoop about two tons of earth to get to the sand, and then about two tons of the sand itself. To make this process as efficient as possible, the industry uses $15 million 495HF Bucyrus electric shovels that stand five-storeys high to dig out sand and drop 400-ton loads onto 1.5-storey 797B Caterpillar dump trucks. Every day, about one million tons of the sand is dug and transported to be washed with about 200,000 tons of water. The water is then heated in order to extract the bitumen from the sand. This method costs roughly 10 times more than it costs the Saudis to pump their light oil.

But this process is only an option for the shallow bitumen that is closest to the surface. An estimated 80% of the reserves are too deep to be dug so instead the bitumen is steamed straight from the ground using enormously intricate systems of pipes and pumps. This is called "in situ thermal recovery" and it uses about twice the energy of the digging method.

Only when the bitumen has been extracted from the sand can usable oil be upgraded from the bitumen. The raw bitumen is sent to upgrader plants which process the black tar under high heat and pressure. The entire process uses an incredibly large amount of energy which is mostly supplied by natural gas. Critics of the industry note that the cleanest of the fossil fuels is being depleted to produce one of the dirtiest.

The Oil Sands operation releases at least three times the CO2 emissions as regular oil production and is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

But deforestation, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions aren't the only problems. It takes an average of three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River to produce just one barrel of oil. The Oil Sands uses more water per year than the entire city of Calgary, the largest city in Alberta and the fifth largest in Canada. In return, one barrel of oil produces about two barrels of toxic water. The waste is pumped into dozens of holding basins known as "tailings ponds." Although they are known as ponds, some of these massive man-made lakes are dozens of kilometers across. They are clearly visible on Google Earth. (Satellite image:

In April 2008, the problems of the toxic tailings ponds entered Canadian consciousness when the media disseminated a story in which 500 ducks lost their lives by mistaking a tailings pond for a natural lake. Although the Alberta government denies it, environmental groups maintain that the tailings ponds leak contaminated water into local soil and water ways causing severe ecological harm.

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