Oil from sand? You better believe it.

Question: From which country does the United States receive the majority of it’s oil?
Answer: Canada! Not Saudi Arabia. Not Angola. Not Kuwait. Canada.
You would be very surprised by how few people know this crucial fact. Or maybe not that surprised, depending on how you answered the above question.
Fact is Alberta’s bituminous tar sands have rapidly become a burgeoning force in our oil-driven world. The oil itself is retrieved through “unconventional” methods, as the sands are mined and refined through various processes to extract bitumen and turn it into petroleum. Controversy is raging right now over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring much more oil from Alberta’s tar sands across the US to refineries on the Gulf Coast – possibly for export to Mexico, Central America and other markets. The U.S. recently began exporting more petroleum than we import.
Alberta has experienced a economic boom in only a few short years, shepherding job creation and wealth into the province. However, environmental protests against domestic tar sands expansion and subsequent impacts on local wildlife and the Athabasca River are gaining force. Although industry players draw support through proclamations that tar sands are more “ethical” compared to oil from the Middle East or Africa, carbon emissions from extraction and refining pose significant climate threats to all of us.
Regardless of the politics, the actual mining imprint on Alberta’s landscape is impossible to fudge, and getting harder to ignore. See SkyTruth’s Flickr page for satellite images of the Athabasca mines.
Above: An animation of Alberta’s tar sands growth, including refining stations, open pit mines and tailing ponds.
Below: 1974-2009 mined extent and area approved for tar sands mining. Washington, DC shown for scale. Mine-extent data provided by Global Forest Watch Canada.

Believe it or not, these SkyTruth maps only show part of the impact of tar sands development – the area where surface mining is the preferred technique.  A much larger area surrounding this has been targeted for  “in-situ” exploitation, where steam is generated (by burning natural gas) and pumped into the ground, heating up the buried tar sands deposits until bitumen is liquified and can be pumped to the surface for processing. Here’s the landscape footprint of the in-situ process:

Infrastructure footprint of in-situ extraction of bitumen using the steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technique near Cold Lake, Alberta. Each bright rectangular patch is a cleared area about 6-7 acres in size where horizontal wells are drilled to inject steam and extract the bitumen for processing. Drilling sites are spaced about 0.2 – 0.5 miles apart.
3 replies
  1. Kennis says:

    An important correction: The U.S. recently began exporting more petroleum *PRODUCTS* than we import. Net U.S. imports of petroleum in all forms (both crude oil and refined products such as gasoline and diesel fuel) was 9.44 million barrels per day in 2010, but total U.S. consumption of petroleum in all forms was 19.148 million barrels per day, meaning that the U.S. imports about half of what it consumes (and this is still true in 2011). See http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_home#tab2 for details.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for that clarification Kennis – yes, we were referring to import and export of refined products, not raw crude oil. Some might question how we can argue for increased domestic drilling to improve energy security and maintain low energy prices, while simultaneously allowing more gasoline and heating oil and other products to be sold to consumers in other countries who are willing to pay higher prices. That's how the free market works, but it's misleading for politicians to imply that all the oil and gas we produce here in the US is going to actually stay here in the US for the benefit of American consumers.

  3. John says:

    Guest comment from Ann, who asked me to post this:

    Dont' forget to include the horrendous impacts on BC's north providing the resources needed for the development of Alberta's oil.
    The impacts are unfathomable and not considered anywhere.
    Thank you for your work.

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