There are estimates suggesting that the tar sands of Alberta, Canada may contain more than 1.5 trillion barrels of synthetic crude oil in an area roughly the size of New York State. Given that the citizens of this planet consume about 30 billion barrels of oil per year, it seems that Peak Oil is another fallacy consigned to the proverbial dust bins of history. At that annual consumption rate, 1.5 trillion barrels will last a good long while! It’s an awe-inspiring number to say the least….

Of course, what the deniers of Peak Oil neglect to mention (facts can be so annoying!) is that perhaps 10% of that total will ultimately be produced, and that will take many decades if not centuries. This estimated reserve nonetheless represents the second largest resource on the planet, exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. But it is, sad for the deniers, not the solution to our energy woes.

Canada is already the United States’ leading supplier of oil, and about half of that comes from the tar sands in Athabasca Valley. The tar sands (some prefer the more benign term “oil sands,” as if we’re discussing beach sand that one just scoops up with a shovel and then wrings the oil out) are actually a mix of ingredients including bitumen, which is a dense congregation of heavy hydrocarbons (think paving material). At room temps bitumen is so thick that it does not flow, and fifteen or twenty degrees cooler than that, it’s as hard as a hockey puck.

One does not require any technical expertise to realize that converting thousands of tons of hockey pucks each day to liquid oil is a wee bit energy-intensive. And when the facts about extraction are made known (forests are first leveled, then tons of earth are excavated, then the bitumen from those tons of earth are heated to several hundred degrees by a high-pressure steam process known as Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage to liquefy the tar sands—all produced via natural gas at levels which some suggest are enough to heat 3 million homes per day—resulting in carcinogen-laced waste water left in nearby “tailings ponds” which currently cover an area greater than 50 square miles!), it quickly becomes clear that we have some energy-related and environmental issues of considerable magnitude.

It’s been stated that every barrel of synthetic crude produced originated from more than two tons of tar sands dug up and separated by the above-referenced steam process, which itself requires two barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced. Think about that for a moment … this is what we have to do to obtain oil?

Leaks from the tailings ponds and resultant contamination of ground water are of immense concern to the residents of the area, and the significantly greater incidents of cancers among residents have been sources of dispute for years. Thousands of birds and animals have reportedly died from exposure to these contaminant-laden ponds. One Canadian report suggests that for all the efforts to contain those ponds, several million gallons of the polluted water leaks out every day. Not a single one of the tailings ponds have been reclaimed in accordance with the licenses granted. Once the mining stops, what happens when the ponds are left completely untreated and unattended?

(And I’m not even discussing the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this incredibly energy-intensive process, which are estimated to be anywhere from 15% – 40% per barrel higher than conventional oil production. I’m also skipping any discussion of the huge investments in specialized oil refineries needed to process synthetic crude, and the pollution potentials arising from the pipeline networks for transporting that fuel from Alberta to the Great Lakes region of both Canada and the United States.)

The deniers, as they are so skilled at doing, tend to gloss over those pesky truths and instead issue their pronouncements about the trillions of barrels of oil at the ready. They also conveniently neglect to inform that the current rates of oil production from tar sands aren’t even enough to keep pace with annual depletion rates from conventional oil fields. Omitting those facts makes it seem as though we just have all of these billions or trillions of barrels of “extra” oil just waiting for someone to lay claim. The truth is far different.

After thirty years of investments to the tune of several hundred billion dollars and thirty years of production efforts, the Canadian tar sands are producing less than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day … that’s it! In fact, Canada’s energy forecast was recently trimmed, pushing out the estimated higher rates of production by several more years. This past November, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) released a study showing tar sands production increasing to 4.5 million b/d by 2030 and growing toward a peak of 5.3 million b/d in 2041. Actual production in 2008 was 1.3 million b/d. [1] It seems we have a ways to go….

Even the most optimistic boosters of the tar sands expect no more than 3 million barrels of synthetic crude oil per day in the next 15 – 20 years, and with worldwide consumption rates of approximately 85 million barrels per day, 3 million won’t make much of a dent. It will make even less of a difference once increased demand, depletion rates, and an inability to keep pace via new discoveries are all factored into the mix. Facts truly are annoying at times!

Worse for advocates of tar sands as the solution to end all solutions, the current recession and price volatility in the oil markets have adversely impacted Canadian investments as well. It’s been reported that projects which were expected to deliver more than a million and a half barrels of this synthetic crude per day were cancelled or placed on hold indefinitely [2]

Our industrial needs dictate that we get all the oil we can. But at some point, we need to ask: At what cost? Let’s hope we have the collective wisdom to ask it a day too soon rather than a day too late.

Next: An Intro’ To Oil Shale


[1] Canadian Oil Sands Misses Unrealistic Projection – Issues Another
Published Mon, 12/14/2009 by ASPO-USA
[2] Extreme oil: Scraping the bottom of Earth’s barrel 02 December 2009 by David Strahan