Tag Archives: bitumen

Canada oil sands: dirtier than conventional domestic crude

Repost from the Daily Democrat, Davis CA
[Editor: Original materials: see the Abstract of the study or the 19 pages of Supporting Information.   – RS]

Canada oil sands have more emissions than those in US

By Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News Service, 06/25/15, 3:20 PM PDT
A photo of the Valero refinery taken at night in Benicia. Benicia’s Valero refinery is one of the Bay Area’s five refineries that have moved toward acquiring Canadian tar sands crude by rail. A new study by UC Davis has found oil from Canada causes more emissions than oil from the United States.

Gasoline and diesel fuel extracted and refined from Canadian oil sands will release about 20 percent more carbon into the atmosphere over its lifetime than fuel from conventional domestic crude sources, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, UC Davis and Stanford University.

The research was funded by the Bioenergy Technologies Office and Vehicle Technologies Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The researchers used a life-cycle, or “well-to-wheels,” approach, gathering publicly available data on 27 large Canadian oil sands production facilities. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found the additional carbon impact of Canadian oil sands was largely related to the energy required for extraction and refining.

“The level of detail provided in this study is unprecedented,” said co-author Sonia Yeh, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCD, who helped lead research on emissions related to land disturbance. “It provides a strong scientific basis for understanding the total carbon emissions associated with using this resource, which allows us to move forward with informed discussions on technologies or policy options to reduce carbon emissions.”

Canadian oil sands are extracted using two processes, both of which are energy intensive. Oil close to the surface can be mined, but still must be heated to separate the oil from the sand. Deeper sources of oil are extracted on site, also called in situ extraction, requiring even more energy when steam is injected underground, heating the oil to the point it can be pumped to the surface. The extracted oil product, known as bitumen, can be moved to refineries in the United States or refined on site to upgraded synthetic crude.

On-site extraction tends to be more carbon intensive than surface mining, and producing refined synthetic crude generally requires more carbon emissions than producing bitumen. Depending on which methods are used, the carbon intensity of finished gasoline can vary from 8 percent to 24 percent higher than that from conventional U.S. crudes.

“This is important information about the greenhouse gas impact of this oil source,” said lead author and Argonne researcher Hao Cai. “Canadian oil sands accounted for about 9 percent of the total crude processed in U.S. refineries in 2013, but that percentage is projected to rise to 14 percent in 2020.”

Yes, they are “Bomb Trains.” Even more importantly, they are “Global Destruction Trains”

Our Earth Day refocus on the larger issues

By Roger Straw, Editor, The Benicia Independent, April 22, 2015
This Sierra Club before-and-after photo of tar sands strip mining appeared with my 6/14/13 opinion in the Benicia Herald, “Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?” – Roger Straw

My initial alarm over Valero’s proposal to build a crude-by-rail offloading facility here in my hometown came almost two years ago now, when I learned of the destruction in Alberta Canada caused by the mining and processing of tar sands.   It was plain to me that a decision to permit Valero Crude By Rail here, thousands of miles from those dirty bitumen mines, would position my hometown as a valued partner in the world’s most toxic oil extraction and transport operation.  I joined with others here in Benicia to organize so that we would have no part in that dirty game.

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec
Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

For me and for many along the rails in the U.S., our focus shifted gradually – or in some cases suddenly – to public safety issues surrounding Bakken shale oil train derailments and the resultant catastrophic explosions and fireballs.

Lately, I’m thinking that even though these safety concerns will not go away with the eventual passage of a few new laws and long-delayed safety regulations, we all might want to consider renewing and strengthening our original focus.

What we decide here along the tracks and in refinery towns has EVERYTHING to do with the situation in Alberta and the Upper Midwest where tar sands bitumen and shale oil is being produced.  People there, the land there, the wildlife, the air and water … these are the first and lasting victims of our thirst for cheap oil.

We hear so much about the oil boom’s contribution to “energy independence.”   Well, let’s focus on REAL energy independence: leave the oil in the ground, tax carbon, invest in clean energy.

The Benicia Independent has always been concerned with climate change, the air we breathe and the water and land that sustains life.  But our focus, like that of much of the media, has been primarily on the oil train derailments that have understandably shocked and frightened the public since July, 2013.  As editor and publisher, I’m serving notice this Earth Day, that the Benicia Independent is taking on a renewed commitment to cover the ongoing environmental damage and the increased risks of pollution if we permit oil trains.

You will begin to see more stories about proposed carbon taxes, polar ice, the destruction of land and lives in Alberta and the Upper Midwest and more.

Note that I fully expect my work to be dominated from time to time by the NEXT BIG EXPLOSION, and the NEXT ONE….  As long as oil trains rumble through our neighborhoods, city centers, mountains and wetlands and into our refinery industrial centers, we WILL see derailments.  And no matter the new federal safety rules and the efforts of the rail and oil industries, NOTHING can prevent the massive weight of a moving chain of these monstrous tank cars from coming off the tracks occasionally, accordion jackknifing, flipping and puncturing, setting off horrific explosions, and endangering human life and our natural world.  It will happen, and I will cover the news.

But for every day that you DON’T see a news report with fiery skies and black billowing smoke, please understand that the not-so-silent killer strip-mines and the fracking and horizontal drilling continue, too often unreported.  Far from most of us, but up close and real to the people who live there, our earth is groaning under the weight of our permitting decisions and our corporate desire for continued crude-oil profitability.

Here in Benicia, we will say NO to crude by rail.  It’s a tangible way to have a small say in the welfare of our town, our state, our nation and our beautiful planet earth.

Leave the oil in the ground.  Tax carbon.  Invest in clean energy.


Sightline Daily

Understanding the North American Tar Sands
Jan 14, 2015 Last year, Portland’s KBOO Community Radio profiled what is “the largest industrial project on Earth”: the North American tar sands. Typically, one hears of the “Canadian tar sands,” as if the issue is one that lives only north of the US national border and need not concern American citizens. But reporter Barbara Bernstein’s documentary, “Fighting Goliath,” revealed an alarming and very real threat…

Oil Change International

Tar Sands
Tar sands are found underneath Canada’s great boreal forest and consist of heavy crude oil trapped in a mixture of sand and clay. To extract oil from tar sands, companies must destroy fragile forest ecosystems and then use a very energy-intensive upgrading and refining process to turn that sludge into transportation fuel….

Natural Resources Defense Council

Stop Dirty Fuels : Tar Sands
In Canada, the oil industry is transforming one of the world’s last remaining intact ecosystems into America’s gas tank….

Forest Ethics

Canada’s tar sands is one of the largest industrial projects on the planet, and its environmental footprint is growing by the second. At a time when the world needs to transition to cleaner energy, the tar sands is the poster child of what we should not be doing. It’s time to put a healthy environment above corporate profit and the endless drive for more oil….

[More Google links on tar sands …]

Tar Sands Basics

Argonne National Laboratory
Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay,
sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can
be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is
then refined into oil.

Oil sands – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Oil sand is either loose sand or partially consolidated sandstone
containing a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, and water,
saturated with a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum
technically referred to as bitumen  (or colloquially tar due to its
similar appearance, odour, and colour).

Stop Dirty Fuels: Tar Sands


Extracting tar sands, and turning bitumen into crude oil, uses vast amounts of energy and water, and causes significant air and water pollution, and three times …

What are the Tar Sands? | Rainforest Action Network

Rainforest Action Network
The Keystone XL pipeline is a disastrous project of tar sands oil
companies that will do serious damage to our country and
climate.  If built, the spill prone …

Canada’s oil sands: The steam from below | The Economist

The Economist
Sep 6, 2014 – ONE of the bleakest scenes of man-made
destruction is the strip mining of oil sands in the forests of
Alberta, Canada. The sand is permeated …

Tar sands – Friends of the Earth


Tar sands are found underneath Canada’s great boreal forest and consist of heavy crude oil trapped in a mixture of sand and clay. To extract oil from tar sands, …

Canada’s tar sands: Muck and brass | The Economist

www.economist.com/node/17959688‎ – The Economist

But golf courses and suburban housing make the place liveable, and some locals have grown attached to Alberta’s tar sands and Fort McMurray, the town at the centre of them. “I’d like …

Unconventional Crude – The New Yorker

www.newyorker.com/magazine/…/unconventional-crud…‎ – The New Yorker

The tar sands begin near the border of Saskatchewan, around the latitude of Edmonton, and extend, in three major deposits, north and west almost to British Columbia. All in all, they …

How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?

www.scientificamerican.com/…/tarsands-and-keyston…‎  – Scientific American

The Opposite of Mining: Tar Sands Steam Extraction Lessens Footprint, but Environmental Costs Remain · Oil Sands Raise Levels of Cancer-Causing Compounds in Regional Waters.

What are Oil Sands? – Canadian Association of Petroleum …


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. They are found in several locations around the globe including Venezuela, USA, Russia and Canada.

No Tar Sands | UK Tar Sands Network | What are tar sands?


Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world,
currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Largely located
in Alberta, the tar sands …

Tar-sands Tailings Ponds: Alberta Regulations Falling Short

Repost from NRDC – Jennifer Skene’s Blog
[Editor:  Don’t miss the excellent video below.  Also of note… the video refers to a powerful report on tar-sands mining by Ted Genoways in the December 2014 issue of Outside Magazine, “The High Cost of Oil.”  – RS]

Alberta’s Greatly Anticipated Tar Sands Tailings Ponds Framework Falls Short

Jennifer SkeneBy Jennifer Skene, March 13, 2015

A new Tailings Management Framework released by the Government Alberta unfortunately enables industry to sidestep taking meaningful action on one of the most pressing environmental issues of tar sands development. For years, Alberta’s political leaders have promised to finally address the harmful legacy of the toxic tar sands tailings problem. But this latest framework is not likely to compel industry action to clean up the tailings in a meaningful way, especially given its lack of meaningful enforcement mechanisms. This, in fact, makes the new framework a step in the wrong direction since the previous regulation, Directive 074, had concrete means of enforcement. Furthermore, Alberta’s history of unfulfilled promises to protect Canadian citizens and wildlife from the devastating effects of tailings ponds casts doubt on the framework’s true efficacy. This framework, without evidence of successful, speedy reclamation efforts, should not serve as a shroud obscuring the Canadian government’s inaction on tar sands and tailings ponds. It is further demonstration to U.S. officials that Alberta isn’t ready for serious action. The failure of the Alberta government to finally release a comprehensive, framework that stops the growth of tailings adds to the urgency to calls for a halt to an expansion of the tar sands industry.

The Problem of Tailings Ponds

Tailings ponds are a blight upon Alberta’s landscape that endanger both wildlife and Canadians. These ponds, which consist of the bitumen, napthenic acids, heavy metals, and other toxic substances left over from tar sands mining, kill and deform wildlife and poison downstream communities. There are currently 976 billion liters of tailings in the mineable region in Alberta–the equivalent of 390,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools–and this number is steadily growing. The dangers of the tailings ponds have been well illustrated. In addition to the recent tailings pond spills in Alberta and British Columbia, there is significant evidence that the ponds are leaking into groundwater, which could be placing wildlife and communities at risk (see video below).

This new tailings framework released by the provincial government is the latest effort to address the unrelenting growth of these tailings ponds and to hold tar sands companies accountable for taking steps to reclaim tailings. However, Alberta’s history and the framework itself provide plenty of reason to doubt that it will be effective.

Alberta’s History of Unfulfilled Promises

Canadian leaders have been heralding the creation of an effective tailings policy for years, but tailings volumes continue to grow. While Alberta has touted its environmental leadership, it has largely failed to protect its environment and citizens from the effects of tar sands tailings ponds. In 2010 Premier Ed Stelmach called for the elimination of tailings ponds, stating that the province would have to “get more aggressive” with mining companies to ensure that they reclaimed their waste. In April 2013, even as Alberta was failing to enforce existing tailings laws, Premier Allison Redford promised, “tailings ponds [will] disappear from Alberta’s landscape in the very near future.” This new framework’s timeline would not eliminate tailings in the “very near future,” nor would it constitute “get[ting] more aggressive” with the tar sands industry. In fact, if anything, it is a capitulation to the industry after they failed to carry out their obligations under Directive 074.

Tailings emptying into a pond in Alberta Photo by Rocky Kistner, NRDC

The previous tailings framework, Directive 074, was a failure, largely because it was not enforced. Directive 074, passed in 2009 by Alberta’s now-defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), required tar sands companies to reclaim a certain amount of tailings every year, beginning in 2010. By July 2012, companies were obligated to reduce 50% of its tailings every year thereafter, and tailings ponds had to be ready for reclamation within five years of the mine’s closure. The tar sands companies universally failed to meet the Directive’s requirements, and in 2013 the executive manager of the ERCB declared that Directive 074 was “overly optimistic” and that the ERCB would not take any actions to enforce it.

What’s In the New Framework

The new tailings framework – generally weaker than the previous Directive 74 – should not be construed as a solution to address the growing problem of tailings nor its enormous legacy on the northern Alberta landscape. Under the new framework, the Tailings Management Framework for the Mineable Athabasca Oil Sands:

  1. Companies are still able to generate large volumes of toxic tailings over the lifetime of a mine.
  2. Companies are given a lengthy window of time while they ramp up mining operations before they are required to start limiting tailings production.
  3. Because the Government of Alberta has not clarified what is means to “clean up” tailings, there may be a loophole for companies to dump the legacy tailings into end pit lakes.
  4. Companies have a significant amount of time to fully clean up tailings even after a mine closes.
  5. There are no provisions in the framework for enforcement.

The framework sets up tailings reclamation as a trapezoid (see figure below). Tar sands companies will be allowed to accumulate tailings to the extent that they would be able to be within range of an “End of Mine Life Target.” This target will vary based on the project. Companies are given a discretionary 3-10-year period during which they can accumulate tailings. After that time, they will be expected to maintain a constant tailings volume until the end of the mine’s life. Within ten years after the mine’s closure, the company will have to reclaim the entirety of the tailings.

tailings framework graph.jpg

One of the most immediate issues with the new framework is the discretionary period companies are given to accumulate tailings prior to having to engage in any reclamation efforts. It is unclear why the companies are being provided with this window, which will only lead to further accumulation. Furthermore, while the framework would reduce the total quantity of tailings on the landscape, the company is allowed to keep its tailings volume constant until the end of the mine’s life. Many mines last up to 50 years, meaning that full reclamation efforts, other than maintenance of a set amount of tailings, may not even begin for several decades and may not be completed until years after the mine closes. If the company goes out of business in that time, there may be no recourse to clean up the remaining tailings. Reclamation would also be further delayed because the framework provides projects with a ten-year window following the end of the mine’s life until the entirety of the tailings needs to be reclaimed.

Additionally, the framework allows companies a certain percentage deviation from their fixed accumulated tailings volume, referred to as a “Profile Deviation Trigger,” but this number is not specified. It will be up to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to decide upon this percentage, along with each project’s tailings limits and end of life mine targets. However, the AER’s decisionmaking process is unclear, and it is uncertain whether stakeholders would be allowed to voice their concerns before the AER, leaving the basis for these quantities unknown.

Perhaps most significantly, given Alberta’s history with Directive 074, there is little provision in the framework for enforcement. If tar sands companies fail to abide by these more relaxed regulations, it is uncertain how they would be held accountable. The framework states that there will be a “compliance levy” if they deviate from their maximum permitted tailings, but the exact penalty and how it would be carried out, and whether it would be high enough to incentivize reclamation, are uncertain. Additionally, there is no mention of penalties related to tailings pond leakages into groundwater, leaving this crucial issue unregulated.

The framework also leaves vague what constitutes reclamation, stating only that “the land must be reclaimed to a resilient and functional boreal forest ecosystem.” This means the public is not given any guarantee as to whether toxic tailings will ever be cleaned up. The more established definition of reclamation is that it means returning the land to the thriving, vegetated region it was prior to the mine’s construction. Alberta regulators, however, have recently approved the use of end pit lakes as a mechanism for “reclamation.” These end pit lakes store tailings waste at the bottom, which is then capped or covered by fresh water. End pit lakes are largely terra incognita or, rather, lacus incognita.Their safety and effectiveness are unproven; it is uncertain how long, if ever, it will take for the freshwater layer to be free of toxins, or whether the tailings will seep into the surrounding land and water. Thus, even if the framework were effective and enforced, it may still be possible for companies to avoid more proven methods of reclamation.

Implications for the Future of Tailings

While Alberta regulators could certainly point to how the current framework improves upon Directive 074 in that it regulates both past and future tailings, the larger issues identified above loom large. Alberta’s historic lack of enforcement and the ambiguities in the law will give the tar sands industry an easy means of sidestepping any meaningful action on this major issue in the foreseeable future, making it difficult to imagine any scenario in which this framework achieves any substantial regulation of tailings ponds.

Benicia Herald op ed: Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?

THE RAVAGES OF tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada. Sierra Club

By Roger Straw

MANY THANKS TO BENICIA HERALD REPORTER Donna Beth Weilenmann for her detailed report, “Valero rail project: City has no control over oil source” (June 12). It is unfortunate that City Manager Brad Kilger is quoted saying, “The city does not have the authority to control the refinery’s crude sources.”

The source of Valero’s crude is important — here in Solano County, and globally. Since the city can’t control it, perhaps those of us who live here should persuade our friendly giant Valero to stay away from Canadian tar-sands oil of its own volition.

The world is dying, not so slowly, from the burning of fossil fuels. The most polluting of these fuels is mined in Alberta, Canada, where investors are extracting a thick, tar-like substance called “bitumen” from deep layers of sand. This sludge is blasted out of the sand with heated water. Millions of gallons of water are used daily, which first must be heated by natural gas, so the process is not energy efficient and can never be truly competitive with regard to “return on investment” after all costs are factored.

Moreover, additional costs are too often not accounted for — in particular the destruction of miles and miles of pristine northern boreal forests, and in their place the creation of a hellish network of open pit mines, wells, roads, pipes and hundreds of toxic “lakes” from the water used in the extraction process. The destruction has expanded to an area larger than Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Next comes the problem of creating a “blend” of crude oil from the tar-like bitumen that is fluid enough to be transportable by pipeline (Keystone XL), or now by rail. The gazillion-dollar heated railroad cars, we are told by Mr. Kilger, who cites a study paid for by Valero, are “specifically designed not to rupture,” and the city, county, state and feds are all well-prepared to take care of any emergency.

Sure. Tell that to the residents who live near Kalamazoo, Mich., where my daughter was born. We have friends and family nearby there, and their story of leaked tar-sands crude is horrific. After spending more than $765 million on a three-year cleanup there, the Kalamazoo River is still plagued by sunken heavy balls of tar-sands bitumen, threatening habitat, wildlife and human health. For background, see “April Flooding Could Affect Cleanup of 2010 Michigan Oil Spill,” by David Hasemyer:

“Removing dilbit (diluted bitumen) from water is more difficult than removing conventional oil because the chemicals used to thin the bitumen gradually evaporate, while the bitumen sinks to the river bottom.”

Imagine that gunk flowing into our Suisun Marsh after a train derailment — what would that look like? For an idea, read InsideClimate News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning authors’ “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” about “a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.”

We in Benicia — including our neighbors in positions of influence at Valero — need to do some very important homework and ask a lot of questions before this new crude-by-rail project is approved. Imagine a disaster here, or better yet, imagine no opportunity for one. The hearing at the Planning Commission is set for July 11. Comments should be sent by July 1 to City Manager Brad Kilger at City Hall, 250 East L St., Benicia, or by email to bkilger@ci.benicia.ca.us.

Roger Straw is a Benicia resident.