The banes of hard-line environmentalists, Canada’s “tar sands” are some of Earth’s most ill-regarded energy forms. They are also some of the most poorly understood.
Worldwide, state-controlled oil companies own 75% of the planet's known oil. Of the remainder, a full 52% lies in “tar sands,” a naturally-occurring mixture of sand, water, and bitumen. Bitumen, or oil that is too heavy to flow in its natural state, is so entrenched in the surrounding sand that it sits stubbornly immobile underground; it is more difficult and expensive to extract than conventional oil deposits.
Long before Canada was known for its hockey and maple syrup, the country’s aboriginal people used the heavy tar-like mixture to water-proof their canoes and moccasins. More recently, the oil industry has developed a series of innovative processes, which variously heat, steam, and melt the sticky sand. This process coaxes the oil into mobility and, ultimately, into commercial use.
Photographs of searing open pit-mines and flocks of dead birds coated in blankets of oil are often touted as proof of the oil sands’ malevolence. While they are good photo-ops, these “massive” open mines are neither massive nor prolific. Only 20% of oil sands will be extractable through mining. The remaining 80% are found in “drillable” or “In-Situ” oil sands, which are too deep to simply dig out of the ground. Though they hardly make for impressive photographs, the pipes which access these deposits are the most common form of oil sand extraction. The process has an environmental footprint equal to – or smaller than – conventional oil-well drilling, which incidentally, is almost identical to that of natural gas.
Often described as covering “an area the size of Florida,” the estimated 140,000 km2 that tar sand production takes up actually describes the total land leased to oil sands producers. Of that acreage, only 3% is extractable using existing technology. Moreover, the oil sands do not emit the majority of Canadian C02. Although claims frequently allege disproportionate carbon emissions from oil sands extraction, actual emissions account for only 5% of Canada's national total.
Fifteen second sound bites decrying the ethical ramifications of the oil sands are jarring, but the reality of ethical oil can best be seen by comparing the alternatives. Petroleum-guzzling North America is unlikely to quickly change its habits. As it stands, the political will to encourage wide-scale conversion to more renewable fuels is largely stagnant.
The U.S. will merely look towards its next most reliable suppliers of oil, a list that includes Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Venezuela. The U.S. would simply increase the proportion of imports from state oil companies and dictatorships, extracted by questionable means and with virtually no consideration of their practices' environmental and human rights implications.
That being said, the public reaction to oil sands extraction has been largely responsible for the very same technological push that made the process economically viable. The defensive impulse has catapulted the oil industry’s natural panache for developing technology to new levels. Worries about water usage, tailing ponds, and reclaimable land have accelerated the development of the processes that allow oil companies to react to those concerns, with some impressive results.
Convictions aside, the world consumes roughly 100 million barrels of oil a day, which, needless to say, is a rather large amount. As mammoth developing countries propel their middle classes upwards with corresponding levels of industrialization, the world will need even more of its favorite fuel and the widening gap is unlikely to be plugged by wind and other alternatives alone.
Whatever the long-term solution to fossil fuel dependency may be, the bottom line is that as long as the world continues to guzzle oil, its first feeding ground will be Canada. Vast, accessible, and (now) economically attainable, they are here to stay. Critics of the oil sands can, among other things, be credited with the push towards the technology used to extract the oil from the ground as cleanly and cheaply as possible, and be able to return that ground to a near-natural state. However, the rhetoric which the misinformed dissent spawned should not prevent that very same technology from best meeting the world's energy demand.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons