Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Opportunities and Challenges

Canada's National Energy Board has taken a cold hard look at oil sands in a new report called Canada’s Oil Sands—Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: An Update.

The opportunity is easy enough to explain. Output could reach three million barrels per day by 2015. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that the USA currently imports about ten million gallons barrels of oil per day. How much oil China will want circa 2015 is an interesting question to ponder. Still, this would represent a 40% increase in oil production. That's a lot of money...on paper, at least.

What are the challenges? Oh, nothing very much. Rising costs for steel, cement, industrial equipment, and natural gas. Increased emission of greenhouse gases. A lack of skilled labor. Social disruption and collapsing infrastructure in towns near the oil fields. (The opportunity cost of squandering money, labor, and resources on oil sands isn't addressed...too hard to figure out, probably.)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there's also the minor issue of water:

Both mining and in situ operations use large volumes of water for extracting bitumen from the oil sands. Between 2 to 4.5 barrels of water are withdrawn, primarily from the Athabasca River, to produce each barrel of synthetic crude oil (SCO) in a mining operation. Currently, approved oil sands mining projects are licensed to divert 370 million cubic metres (2.3 billion barrels) of freshwater per year from the Athabasca River.

Planned oil sands mines would push the cumulative withdrawal to 529 million cubic meters (3.3 billion barrels) per year. Despite some recycling, almost all of the water withdrawn for oil sands operations ends up in tailings ponds. Stakeholders agree that the Athabasca River does not have sufficient flows to support the needs of all planned oil sands mining operations.
On the bright side, Canada's melting glaciers - including the Athabasca Glacier - could provide a bit of extra water in the short term (and perhaps some valuable uranium, too). And one must also consider the cultural advantages.

My carefully considered guess is that they'll decide the opportunities outweigh the challenges. Apropos of which, this quote from Theodor Adorno:
The obviousness of disaster becomes an asset to its apologists - what everyone knows no one need say - and under cover of silence is allowed to proceed unopposed. Assent is given to what has been drummed into people's heads by philosophy of every hue: that whatever has the persistent momentum of existence on its side is thereby proved right.
(Photo by Edward Burtynsky.)