Very interesting piece on how production works in the Alberta tar sands. My dad – raised next door in Saskatchewan – talked up those sands his whole life and would be pleased. ANWR anyone?
Read it if you’re interested in the details, or just enjoy the ending here:
The people I meet in northern Canada are selling what the world wants. Ultimately, that is what their opponents hate. A common complaint of the anti-Keystone brigade is that oil-sands petroleum requires between 5 and 15 percent more carbon emissions to generate than the average crude-oil equivalent. (This number obsesses the television crew that is following us around.) Royal Dutch Shell questions those numbers, and points out that, besides, it has a plan to reduce emissions by 1 million tons per year, “equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road.” This is a “very real project,” say the government regulators in our meeting. “An impressive project.”
The project is well and good — and, within reason, it is to be applauded. But whom do these marginal improvements convince? People who hate oil hate oil. They don’t want more oil in the world; instead, they desire to replace oil with the mythical energy sources of their choice or, if that is not possible, they want to lower total global energy consumption — the poor be damned. Could things be better? Yes. Are there costs to maintaining civilization? Yes. But we could also stop buying oil from sadistic medieval regimes run by family crime syndicates. I’d take a 15 percent increase in carbon emissions in exchange for North American energy independence. So would the Canadians I meet in the wilds. So, the polls show, would most Americans. One day soon, I hope, so will the person sitting in the White House.
Earlier in the piece the author addresses green concerns over & above CO2 emissions:
Environmentalists grimly call the development the “scar sands” and a score of other unflattering names. Large surface mines such as Syncrude’s are indisputably the most physically intrusive in the region. But, contrary to popular claims, they have left no hellscape in their wakes. What the oil sands’ antagonists routinely fail to mention is that the region’s surface mines are temporary, and that they are not so much growing as they are moving. An area of roughly fixed size is slowly crossing the landscape. Yes, Syncrude’s mine turns an area of beauty into an ugly open wound, but it is an extraordinarily small part of that area — and then they turn it back…
“We are reclaiming as we go,” Robb tells me. “And this is the largest reclamation project in the world.” The company has planted more than 7 million trees, all native species that are painstakingly replaced in accordance with notes taken prior to the start of production. … It is astonishing. The land is flat and pristine. Bison graze in the distance. “It took 20 years to mine out,” Robb smiles, “and then almost twelve to fill back in.” Now, it is a flawless, snow-covered field, and the only sign of disturbance in the area is the pop-pop of propane cannons, triggered by radar to keep the birds away until the reclamation work is finished and the engineers are ready to welcome them back…
The question of the environmental impact comes up. “We will have an impact,” Reg Curren of Cenovus’s media-relations office tells us. “But not a big one. The great thing about SAGD is that its footprint is tiny. Imagine a postage stamp on an envelope. That’s what we’re looking at here.” I note that, flying into the area earlier, I was hard pressed to see what all the fuss was about. “I just saw endless wilderness with very occasional patches of activity,” I offer. Reg agrees: “Compare and contrast. Calgary is 730 square kilometers. Cenovus’s entire facility is six square kilometers.” This includes “everything”: the land for the plant site, the wells, the roads, the pipelines, the camps. Reg’s colleague Rhona DelFrari adds that “the wells themselves are a small portion of that disturbance. If we talk only about the land disturbance of the well pads, each one is about 0.06 square kilometers. But the wells under that pad access about 75 hectares of oil resource.