27 Jan 2006
The Alberta “Oil Rush” on Radio 4.
BBC Radio 4’s **In Business** programme this week, “There’s Oil in Them Thar Sands” looked at the white elephant that is the Alberta tar sands. It really confirmed my suspicions that if the Alberta tar sands are the best we can do we are really in trouble. In Business is a weekly programme that looks at directions and trends in business, and this week it explored the oil sands from the economic and business angle. Alberta is estimated to contain 175 billion barrels of oil, which puts Canada into the top 4 or 5 oil producing countries in the world. Tar sands are far more expensive to produce than most other sources of oil, but with the price of oil rising and rising, these harder-to-extract oil sources become increasingly financially viable. Oil companies are moving into the area, and Fort McMurray, the area’s main town, is becoming a boom town. Clive Mather CEO of Shell Canada describes Shell’s operation in the area are the biggest thing he has ever seen the company undertake. People from all over the world are moving there for the new goldrush.
The problem is that the oil is combined with sand, more like bitumen than oil. To extract it you have to dig it out with huge diggers, move it around in trucks the size of a house, take it to a refinery, put it through steam to separate the sand and the oil, and then refine the oil. It produces lots of CO2, lots of pollution, and requires access to a lot of clean water. It also means damaging and felling areas of ancient boreal forest. Listen to the man in the programme telling you how he is going to repair the landscape once they have gone. I’ve heard that promised elsewhere before, but never actually seen it done anywhere.
Of course the daftest thing about the oil sands is how the steam is produced that separates the oil and sand. Natural gas. Clean, precious natural gas. So you take clean, precious natural gas, burn it to make steam to make dirty crude oil. This is madness. This is no ‘gold rush’, this is literally scraping the barrel, and rather than negating the peak oil argument as those who say “look, see, there’s loads left” propose, this confirms the peak oil argument, that the Age of Cheap Oil is well and truly over. There is a moral question here too, do we really want to waste precious natural gas just so that the US and other ‘developed’ countries can keep their cars on the road? Does another pristine wilderness have to be trashed to faciliate that? Peter Day’s programme is insightful and informative, and gives an idea first hand of how ‘oil sands fever’ is changing the place. He fails to ask the important questions about the Energy Return on Energy Invested of these operations, is it even worth it? Abelard.org give an ERoEI figure for the Alberta oil sands of 1.5 to one, as opposed to 30 to 1 for Saudi Arabia, and that doesn’t include all the associated infrastructure these operations require. The In Business programme reveals, for example, that one tyre alone, on one of the big trucks, costs £30,000. It could well turn out, if a detailed energy audit were carried out, that these operations are a net energy loss. They require the price of oil to stay high in order to be viable, but the other question Day could have asked was how high does the price of natural gas have to rise before it becomes unviable again? Do give this programme a listen, it is very informative, but I can’t help thinking he could have asked the most pertinent question of all, should we really be doing this at all?