Don't Get Stuck InThe Tar, Baby  

Posted by Big Gav

MonkeyGrinder's recent post on delectable oil sand morsels made me ponder the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, in which Brer Rabbit foolishly becomes entangled with a creature made of tar.

With The Oil Drum noting that production costs for tar sands are rapidly rising - which seems to be the usual case for low EROEI energy sources as the price of oil rises - and may not even be "profitable" at US$65 per barrel of oil (ignoring all the externalities like massive carbon dioxide emissions and the environmental destruction involved), I really wonder if it's worth getting trapped in the tar sands in the quest for North American energy security.

Tar sands have been in the news quite a lot lately, with Dark Lord Cheney visiting Alberta recently to check out if there is any loot to be liberated, along with the usual notes about the damage being done to the environment.

Nobody said sucking 175 million barrels of oil out of sand was going to be easy or tidy.

And it isn't. Environmental challenges posed by massive operations that strip-mine forests and extract bitumen embedded in sand beneath are proving as vast as Alberta's tar sands region, an area the size of Florida.

"Environmental management is a huge growth area" for the tar sands companies, says Janet Annisely of Shell Oil Co., majority owner of the Albian Sands Inc. project here. Syncrude, which operates the world's largest tar sands production facility, for example, boasts of spending more than $30 million a year on science and technology and calls its 4,000 on-site employees "environmental managers."

But critics say the environmental work done so far has been highly experimental and that there is no definitive answer as to the long-term harm tar sands production is doing to northern Alberta.

"They're operating on a hope and a prayer that it will work out in the future," said Dan Woynillowicz of the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development, a Canadian think tank monitoring the environmental and economic effects of tar sands projects. "And ultimately, if there is a problem in the future, will they be willing to accept that they'll have to try to deal with it then?"

The debate appears to hinge on whether the process can be done cleanly, or whether the tar sands should be mined and produced at all -- particularly given its enthusiastic backers' goal of tripling current production by 2015.

"If you don't like mining on public land, you don't like this," said a staffer for a Western member of Congress who toured the Alberta tar sands region this month.

And environmentalists do not like it. Not one bit.

"When they talk about how well they're doing, it's in the context of the filthiest industry one can imagine," said Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada. "I can't think of another industry that causes so much damage."

Citing the greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution, water use and other problems, Hazell added, "It all has to be put within that context. Yes, they're improving their performance, but what is the baseline they're starting from? You have to sort of go back to the 19th century to find parallels."

Land Of Black Gold has also made numerous references to "Operation Alberta Freedom" lately (he seems quite pro the idea of tar sand mining and, even more importantly it seems, preventing the Quebecois from getting any of the revenue from it) - one interesting (and long) report he links to pushes tar sands extraction in the context of peak oil.

Going back to MonkeyGrinder's post, one commonly recognised problem with tar sands is that large quantities of natural gas is used to process the stuff, and with North American natural gas supplies in decline this will no doubt become a limiting factor at some point (plus who really wants to turn relatively clean and ecofriendly natural gas into nasty heavy oil anyway).

As some commenters such as Engineer-Poet note, you could actually bootstrap the whole process using natural gas then switch to using the oil products to run the process rather than natural gas - which is no doubt where they'll end up. This should maximise the carbon emissions - so maybe the plan is that if Canadian winters never get below freezing in future the process will be easier to run year round.
Natural Gas requires a pipeline; bitumen is available on-site. In addition, NG is more expensive per BTU than oil (and ergo more so than raw bitumen). I expect that the ultimate system is going to wind up building the mines with diesel power, and bootstrapping the refinery startup with the same stuff since it's already on hand.

Bunker fuel oil is essentially wax, but it fuels big marine diesels. Bitumen isn't all that much heavier, and I wonder if it couldn't also be burned in diesels with heated fuel systems. The idea of a tar-sands mine which "eats its own dog food" is interesting, and would probably increase the EROEI.

Rather than this somewhat nightmarish scenario, commenter Jack suggests perhaps modern technology could be applied:
I do not understand why some people insist on changing the engineering of a system just so they can keep burning Carbon.

Electric powered mining equipment already exists. Wind turbines already exist. And coal-based (or even trash burning) steam to electrical power already exists.

Why run about 'redesigning a diesel engine' when one can combine the above electrical items into a working system? Unless one likes adding costs and creating an untried system.

Personally, my hope is that someone will chuck them all into a briar patch before they dig up half of Canada...


Brer Rabbit conned Tom Wildcat into getting stuck in the tar. The author says Brer Rabbit got stuck in the tar, not so. The author apparantly knows of the tale but has never actually read or heard it. He should, it's a great story.

You obviously read a different story than I did dude:

(Though in your defence, I think there might be another Brer Rabbit story involving tar that followed this one).

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