Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Growing Cities of Alberta

Oil sands are to the cornucopian imagination what oxycontin is to Rush Limbaugh. Still, reality has a way of penetrating even the hardiest of self-imposed stupors:

The oil sands' thirst for water is far outstripping Alberta's projections, threatening to drain the Athabasca River as the pace of project development accelerates, a prominent environmental group says in a report issued yesterday....

In situ projects, which use steam to melt bitumen before it is pumped to the surface, used almost three times as much water in 2004 as originally projected. That part of the industry used 27 million cubic metres in 2004, the equivalent of about 72,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools....

"I fear we're going to run out of water before we run out of bitumen in northern Alberta," said Mary Griffiths, senior policy analyst at the Pembina Institute. The environmental group renewed its call for a moratorium on approving any new oil sands projects, and said the industry should start paying for the water it uses.
The implication of that last paragraph (if you read between the lines very, very carefully) is that the industry has been getting its water for free.

Does this mean that the per-barrel cost of processing oil sand is a bit higher than its political boosters claim, even before you factor in external costs? It certainly sounds that way. But I suppose it all depends on how you look at it:
The oil industry, while acknowledging that the concern over water use is growing, says its consumption should not be singled out. Other industries, including agriculture, use significant volumes, as do the growing cities of Alberta.
The most obvious problem with this logic, it seems to me, is that most of "the growing cities of Alberta" are growing primarily because of the boom in oil sands. The other problem is that unlike municipal water, most water used in oil fields doesn't go back into the watershed; instead, it's contaminated and stored in tailings ponds.

You can access the Pembina Institute's full report (or an eight-page summary) here.


Thersites said...

So they're trying to make Canada Dry?

What's wrong with more ginger ale and tonic water?

Phila said...

What's wrong with more ginger ale and tonic water?

You're clearly unaware of the dangers of uncontrolled nuclear fizzin'.

I refer you to the seminal paper "Eastern European Research Into the Tactical Uses of Schweppervescence: A New Cause for Concern" (1978) by Drs. Brown and Pepper.

AJ said...

In all seriousness...

it's almost as dumb as the hydrogen economy. First thing - they burn enormous amounts of natural gas to heat the water; similar to the current distortion of prices in the food market due to the whole corn-ethanol boondoggle, natural gas for other uses like home heating / cooking is now much more expensive, and supply/demand is inelastic. It isn't clear there actually will _be_ enough natural gas to even continue this process in 8 years' time. Some even say they should build nuclear plants on the tar sands instead...

Secondly, if they actually processed all that bitumen, it would create 1-2 barrels of polluted water for every barrel of oil: in theory "300 billion barrels" of oil, so theoretically 500-600 billion barrels of polluted water; it's estimated that it takes 200 years for pollutants to precipitate out of the water in the tailing ponds.

good report here at Energy Bulletin.

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