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What are the pros and cons of extracting oil from "oil sands"?

Background and context

Tar sands, extra heavy oil, bituminous sands, or oil sands, are a type of bitumen deposit. The sands are naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. They are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela.
Tar sands reserves have only recently been considered to be part of the world's oil reserves, as higher oil prices and new technology enable them to be profitably extracted and upgraded to usable products. They are often referred to as unconventional oil or crude bitumen, in order to distinguish the bitumen extracted from tar sands from the free-flowing hydrocarbon mixtures known as crude oil traditionally produced from oil wells. Making liquid fuels from tar sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. If combustion of the final products is included, the so-called "Well to Wheels" approach, tar sands extraction, upgrade and use emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude. This, along with the local environmental and human-health impacts have contributed to the debate surrounding the resource. While many welcome it as a way to stave off high oil prices and ensure greater energy security, others question whether it worsens an addiction to oil that may push back the development of green energy technologies. These and other pros and cons are considered below.

See Wikipedia article on oil sands for more background.

Contents

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Energy security: Do oil sands improve energy security?

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Pro

  • Better to import oil from Canadian sands than from corrupt regimes "Canada's energy industry. Tarred with the same brush." The Economist. Aug 5th 2010: "'A GOOD neighbour lends you a cup of sugar,' read an ad in the Washington Post last month. 'A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.' Ed Stelmach, the premier of the energy-rich province of Alberta, certainly knows how to make the case for Canadian petroleum. Buying from Canada neither props up an authoritarian regime nor exposes the United States to political manipulation of its energy supply. Little wonder, then, that Canada is the biggest exporter of oil to America, with 22% of the total. The runners-up, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, have just 11-12% each. And the country’s potential seems limitless: Canada’s 179 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves rank second in the world."


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Con

  • Oil sands undermine long-term clean energy security "Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010: "Major oil company and other tar sands oil interests are attacking climate and clean energy policies in the United States and elsewhere. Concerned about their massive investments, tar sands oil interests are trying to undermine fuel standards, fuel purchasing provisions and other clean energy initiatives that would protect our climate, create green jobs and secure our future. Expansion of tar sands will undermine a U.S. transition to a clean energy economy."
  • Tar sands unnecessary if focus is placed on clean energy "Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010: "American Security Depends on Reducing Dependence on Oil. The best security policy for our nation and climate is to aggressively implement fuel efficiency and other measures that reduce oil dependency. These and other measures stand to reduce U.S. demand for oil by four million barrels per day by 2020 and ten million barrels per day by 2030, which would make expansion of tar sands unnecessary for U.S. fuel needs."
  • Nations can choose a clean energy future over tar sands "Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010: "As the world’s largest oil consumer, the United States has choices about its energy future. America currently consumes a quarter of the world’s oil supply. We must and can do better, and we have the technology to do it. A nation as innovative and motivated as the United States can find a way to maintain mobility, while at the same time acting to halt expansion of expensive and dirty fuels such as tar sands oil that cause global warming and a host of other environmental and health problems. Electric cars, renewable energy, environmentally sustainable biofuels, fuel efficiency, and smart growth are all positive solutions to meet our future energy needs."


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Energy source: Are oil sands a good/competitive energy source?

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Pro

  • The markets have already determined that oil sands are viable There is no need to speculate about the viability of oil sands in the marketplace. Supply, demand, and pricing will flush out the question of its viability, and it already has to a great extent: millions of barrels of crude from oil sands in Canada are being sold in the US, Canada, and around the world. The proof is in the pudding, and clearly oil sands are doing very well.
Gavin Graham. "Maple Leaf Markets. Canadian Oil Sands Still Look Good." Forbes. May 3rd, 2010: "The first column that I wrote for The Income Investor five years ago recommended buying units of Canadian Oil Sands Trust ( COSWF - news - people ). At the time, I commented that although it didn't have the highest yield in the energy sector, the trust had the potential to increase its payout over time. That would lead to an increase in cash flow as well as an upward move in the share price as other investors were attracted to the increasing profits and distributions generated by the company. I am pleased to say that, in this case at least, the theory proved correct. I recommended COSWF at $16.85 in March 2005. At the time the units paid a quarterly distribution of 10c, or 40c per unit annualized. Although there have been ups and downs along the way, the current distribution has more than tripled to 35c a unit, while the share price has almost doubled to $30.35 (price as of April 30). This compares favorably with both the broader stock market, where the S&P/TSX Composite Index has risen by less than 35% since March 2005, and with the Energy Trust Index, which has actually fallen over the same period."


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Con

  • Oil sand extraction is far too costly to be sustainable. Oil sand extraction requires washing oil off of sand with chemicals and water, and then refining it through much more lengthy and energy-intensive processes. This is very expensive, and is only profitable when oil is at a very high price.
  • Oil sands require too much water to be sustainable. Oil sands require about 4 barrels of water for every one barrel extracted. This is far too much, is a strain on local water resources, is costly, consumes significant amount of energy in the piping of the water, and leaves polluted ponds behind.
  • Oil sands can't compete w/ cleaner, abundant, cheaper natural gas Natural gas is considered to be the rising energy star of the 21st century. Oil sands will have a hard time competing with this. Natural gas is cheaper, more abundant, and is much cleaner. That it is cleaner will become particularly important as countries place a price on carbon.


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Climate change: Are oil sands bad for climate change?

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Pro

  • Oilsands account for less than 1 percent of global emissions In an op-ed in the Argus Leader, John Duff Erickson, professor emeritus at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, wrote: "It would be folly to halt oil sands production and the construction of pipelines that would carry Canadian oil to U.S. markets. Oil sands development accounts for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions."[1]
Tom Huffaker. "The case for optimism: Some perspective on oil sands." San Francisco Chronicle. October 09, 2009: "oil sands account for five per cent of Canada's emissions, Canada accounts for two per cent of global emissions, therefore oil sands represent one tenth of one percent of global emissions."
  • Oil Sands emit only a fraction more than petroleum In an op-ed in the Argus Leader, John Duff Erickson, professor emeritus at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, wrote: "Environmental groups claim that oil sands produce five to seven times the carbon emissions of conventional oil, but a study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly regarded consulting group, determined that oil sands emissions are only 5 percent to 15 percent higher than the average barrel of crude oil processed in the United States."[2]
Rebecca Ryall. "Producers defend oil sands emissions." National Post. December 17th, 2009: "back home, the oil industry and the government of Alberta are fighting back against suggestions that oil from northern Alberta is exponentially worse for the planet than the conventional stuff pulled from places like the U.S. gulf coast and Saudi Arabia. [...] Critics and environmental groups concede that the majority of carbon dioxide is created when fuel is burned in cars or factories or jets -- consumption accounts for 78% to 80% of emissions regardless of where or how the crude is produced. [...] Those who support the oilsands, meanwhile, acknowledge that the complicated processes used to recover bitumen make it more greenhouse-gas intensive than lighter, conventional crudes. But the Alberta Energy Research Institute and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said oilsands crude is actually only 5% to 10% worse than other oil producers in their class, if the entire 'life cycle' of the oil is considered. In the case of California’s heavy crude, the oilsands’ emissions level is actually lower. [...] 'It’s actually around 10% worse,' said Eddy Isaacs, managing director of the AERI, said of the oilsands. 'When you look at what we’re actually exporting and what we put in the pipeline that goes to U.S. refineries, compare that to U.S. domestic crudes … Mayan crudes, crudes coming out of Venezuela and even some conventional crudes … [our emissions are] about 10% higher.'"


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Con

  • Oil sands are a symbol of addiction to oil Drug addicts will scrape the bottom of the barrel, so-to-speak, looking for a fix. Oil sands are similar, representing the lengths we are willing to go to in order to meet our addiction to oil.
  • Forests are cleared for oil sands, destroying carbon sinks. Oil sands are often stripped in the production of oil sands, particularly in the boreal forests of Canada, where the largest tar sand fields exist. This eliminates important carbon sinks, forests and plant life that draws down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into Oxygen. Destroying these forests furthers the effects of climate change.
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Local environment: Are oil sands safe for local environment?

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Con

  • Oil sands disrupt/release important carbon reservoirs. Oil sands disrupt critical terrestrial carbon reservoirs in the peatlands of the Boreal forest.[5] In other words, it takes the carbon that would otherwise be tucked away under the ground, and puts it into the atmosphere.
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Health: Are oil sands bad for human health?

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Pro

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Con

  • Oil sand extraction contributes to cases of cancer Ben Jervery. "The Moral Case Against Tar Sands." OnEarth. February 19, 2009: "The impact on local communities, mostly First Nation tribes like the Cree, is nothing short of appalling. Visiting a Cree village and speaking to one of its Elders, Nikiforuk writes, 'MacDonald doesn't have much faith that industry or government will reclaim the toxic ponds that surround his home. About 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for mining ends up behind massive tailings dams or dykes...All these ponds contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts, and bitumen.' The tailings are leaking into the Athabasca too, poisoning the indiginous fish that locals have long relied on for food. [...] In some heartbreaking interviews with Canadian tar sands activist MacDonald Stainsby, local residents reveal that cancer rates in their communities are up, wildlife is disappearing, and river levels are dropping constantly."


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Local communities: What is the local impact of oil sands?

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Courses of action: What actions can taken for pro or con sides?

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Pro

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Pro/con sources

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Pro/con videos

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See also

External links and resources:

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