Posted by: Jon | 06/11/2009

Alberta, you been on my mind…

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
“You got me worried and bothered most all of the time.
“Alberta, you been on my mind…”


Ben Webster’s article in yesterday’s Times newspaper on Canada’s new ‘gold’ rush has inspired me to post in song today – delivered in appropriately nasal and emotionally stricken blues – as Canada still prevaricates over its carbon emissions targets.

Anybody who still harbours any doubts about the severity of our environmental predicament need look no further than the tar sands of Alberta. World demand for energy is expected to double over the next 25 years, just as the easy-to-extract conventional oil is depleting. Which makes the ecological destruction of an expanded tar sand industry look increasingly likely.

Investment in the oil sands to date by the Canadian government and energy companies like Shell and BP is huge, and Canada has thus far extracted only 2% of its ‘black gold’  resource which it hopes could turn the country into an energy superpower. Currently nearly a quarter of a million Canadian jobs depend on the oil-sands and the government would like to expand the industry three-fold. These aspirations have left Canada dragging its feet on setting carbon emission targets. Mel Knight, Alberta’s energy minister sees the resource as critical to the global supply of energy – “The world needs the energy and there is no alternative that we can see”.

Oil sand mining, Alberta, Canada - credit WWFBut a study by the Co-Operative Bank and WWF calculates that, even if all other global warming carbon emissions ceased tomorrow, exploiting the full potential of Canada’s tar sands would by itself be more than enough to precipitate catastrophic climate change.

So picture the scene in the Last Chance Saloon in Fort McMurray, the centre of the new ‘oil Klondike’ on the Athabasca River in Alberta.

“Yeah, yeah”, growl the usual grizzled dissenters gathered around the poker table. “Don’t have to trouble yerself none ‘bout that now. We’re coolin’, not warmin’. So tell us another one”.

“What global warming?” yells the local newspaper owner as he enters, kicking snow from his boots as he enters from  -40 C outside. “Where in hell is all this global warming they’re talking about?”

“Sure, we care about the environment ‘n’ all, but we need our jobs!” chips in an oil processing worker. “The envir’n’men’alists are killin’ the economy and folks is gonna starve”. He pats his pocket to check on his C$180,000 salary wad. “Hell, I wanna buy a house and retire in four years!”

“An’ even if it is a problem, we can catch that bad ol’ CO2 and lock it up some place,” pipes up a nervous techno-fix hopeful from somewhere in the back of the room. “Can’t we?”

Well, maybe so – if we actually had the technology up and running. But we don’t. Even Shell admits that its ambitions to install Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) by 2015 will only reduce carbon emissions by 15-20%. The development of CCS is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns which, even in the most settled of economic climates, would push up the already high costs of extracting oil from tar sands – $60 a barrel compared to $5 for easy Saudi Arabian oil – and so the price of energy worldwide. But none of this diminishes local enthusiasm for producing synthetic crude oil from bitumen encrusted sand. 

Canada has finally and reluctantly committed to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 and, if a successful outcome is to be achieved at Copenhagen next month, will have to agree to an 80% reduction by 2050. But the reality is that, with oil sand extraction, Canada’s emissions have so far risen on 1990 levels by 26%.

But, hey, let’s quit quarrelin’ about ’bout the man-made global warming disagreement. Let’s just take a look at some of the facts we know about oil….

– We know that demand for oil is rising relentlessly. Since 1850 we have used around one trillion barrels and we have known reserves of about the same. In 1900, the world consumed less than half a million barrels a day. By 2000, this had grown to 60 million. By 2008, consumption was running at 80 million barrels and despite the current economic hic-cup, with new energy required by China and India, demand is forecast to grow by 2030 to 120 million barrels a day.

– Oil is a finite resource, but economic growth and our expectations for continuing our current standard of living are utterly dependent on it. It has never been a question of if demand outstrips supply, but when. The International Energy Agency has now altered its traditionally relaxed position on the timing of Peak Oil to say we must “leave oil before it leaves us”. Recently a Swedish study informed us that, far from the 120 million required, by 2030 we can only expect a maximum production of 76 million barrels per year

– The price of oil can only go up as demand outstrips supply. Rising prices make the viability of expensive oil production from tar-sands increasingly attractive to the oil companies. But the consumer will experience ever rising energy bills because of increased production costs and the effects of demand squeezing supply. The high cost of oil will have the knock-on effect of making other fossil-fuel energy more expensive. Rising energy prices will have a strong destabilising effect economically and politically by pushing up inflation – witness the current recession.

– If tar sands are included in estimated world oil reserves, Canada’s oil resource is second only to Saudi Arabia’s in size. Canada wants to capitalise on this and has already invested considerably in the industry. Canada stands to lose out on this economic potential if the country is bound by a global carbon reduction treaty at Copenhagen in December.

– Leaving aside the high carbon emissions of production, tar sands are still a very expensive source of oil. It takes the energy from one barrel of oil to produce every three from tar sands. The same expenditure of one barrel of oil produces around one hundred barrels of conventional oil. The willingness of the oil companies to invest in expensive tar sand oil suggests that conventional oil supplies have already peaked.

– Open cast mining and processing of tar sands are creating an ecological wasteland. Only 2% of Canada’s oil resource has yet been mined; yet this has already stripped 520 square kilometres of top-soil and tree cover and replaced it with open cast mines, industrial plants and vast artificial lakes of toxic water. The scale of wildlife damage is enormous. Oil company commitments to restore the land have not yet been met beyond a paltry few hundred square metres and such ‘making good’ will of course only add to production costs.

We don’t have to believe in global warming, man-made or otherwise, for it to seem like a good idea to learn  to live on less oil pretty quickly. Which ever way you look at it, we’re gonna get squeezed! But powerful interests are playing for high stakes now at the poker tables in the Last Chance Saloon and soon in Copenhagen and there’s nobody left paying attention to little ol’ me. Hey ho, I’ll just mooch back on over to my table in the corner and pick out a quiet tune on my guitar….

Alberta, hang yer head in shame
Alberta, you got yerself to blame
Yer minin’ all the black gold that yer pockets can hold
Alberta, stop yer gamblin’ game


Alberta, let yer head hang down
Alberta, quit yer fooling aroun’
Fer the sake of yer soil, yer gotta give up on your oil
Alberta, leave it lyin’ in the groun’


Alberta, you been on my mind
Alberta, don’t yer treat yer land unkind
Yer ‘ready got more wealth than’ s prob’ly good for yer health
Alberta, get that treaty signed


(With apologies to Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Traditional)



  1. The drawbacks to oil sands development are cost and CO2 generation associated with production.

    The global spent nuclear fuel (SNF) inventory produces the annual energy equivalent of close to 200 operational reactors and is a problem the owners of the heat source are prepared to pay billions to rid themselves of.

    The difficulties with SNF; heat, ionizing radiation and radiolysis which breaks down water into ions corrosive to fuel bundles and their containers are all assets with respect to the development of the oil sands.

    Hydrogen released by the process of radiolysis and the heat generated by a repository within the bitumen would over turn the equilibrium of the system and contribute both to the in situ cracking and mobilization of the viscous bitumen.The high-energy flux of spent nuclear fuel will ionize and fracture (upgrade) a portion of the long chain molecules in the ground.

    These resources could be exploited in a similar fashion to the proven Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage Method with repositories substituting for the steam chambers.

    The best long-term permeability data for moderately deep systems are to be derived from older rocks carrying significant deposits of oil and gas. Such rocks are invariably of sedimentary origin, and it is for sediments that the most reliable data on fluid flow are at present to be found. The fact that oil and gas, often under significant pressure, are found in these formations is proof of the containment properties of sedimentary rock.

    Bitumen has unprecedented capacity to sequester radionuclides as was noted by a recent international study and the 80 percent of the resource that is too deep to be mined is covered by a capping shale formation that would further aid in sequestering radionuclides.

    In compliance with the purpose of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to keep plutonium containing spent fuel out of the hands of non-weapons states or actors it should be returned to Alberta as a resource for the development of its unconventional reserves.

    Instead of consuming valuable and CO2 generating resources to produce these reserves the waste heat of spent nuclear fuel can and should be utilized.

    According to a 2000 DOE report, Thermological Behavior at the Potential Yucca Mountain Waste Repository, the initial heat produced by U.S. nuclear waste will be on the order of 30 to 50 times the heat flux in the Geysers geothermal reservoir in California. According to The California Energy Commission, Geothermal Energy in California website, in 2007 California produced 13,000 gigawatt-hours of geothermal energy. Assuming the conservative estimate of 30 times this amount of heat flux for U.S. nuclear waste, 390,000 gigawatt-hours of energy is produced annually by U.S. waste. This is close to half of the power output by America’s operational reactors (806.5 billion kilowatt-hours (bkWh in 2007) and the equivalent of 219,956,237.507 barrels of fuel oil (US). The energy return on investment for SAGD is 5.2/1 therefore the heat flux of America’s nuclear waste has the potential to produce over a billion barrels of synthetic oil annually.

    The U.S. has approximately a quarter of the global inventory of spent nuclear fuel therefore the potential exists for the development of significantly more unconventional deposits with imported spent fuel.

    Essentially North America’s total oil demand could be met with the aid of the global spent fuel inventory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s