Oil Drilling (Canada)


For many, images of Canada’s boreal forest have come to symbolize the environmental evils of petroleum in the 21st century. The so-called surface mines, sticky mixture of hydrocarbons called bitumen, now account for a substantial portion of Canada’s oil exports, including much of the petroleum going to the United States. But the face of the industry exploiting northern Canada’s oil sands is not environmentally friendly.

The forest-ringed facilities have traded shovels and enormous trucks for an extraction process that drills down hundreds of meters into solid ribbons of bitumen and, using vast quantities of steam, melts the tarry petroleum in place. Liquefied bitumen then oozes out through a system of parallel pipes. This is called “in situ” extraction operations that now account for nearly half the current output of northern Alberta’s oil business, and that figure will only increase. Alberta’s 1.8 trillion barrels of bitumen may be the world’s largest single accumulation of hydrocarbons, but 4/5th of this resource lies deeper than strip-mining can reach. The oil sands will generate over 1.5 million barrels of oil per day this year, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a Calgary-based group. That accounts for more than half the oil that Canada pipes to the United States. By 2025, oil-sands production is projected to more than double, to 3.7 million barrels per day, and in situ operations will deliver nearly two-thirds of that boost.

The catch is that while the drilling might seem on the surface to be less destructive to the environment than strip-mining, in many ways the newer technology is far more damaging. They use vast amounts of energy and consequently produce lots of carbon dioxide. Using steam to flush out bitumen accounts for 2.7 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, or an estimated 19 megatons of carbon dioxide last year—equal to the annual tailpipe emissions of 3.7 million cars. It creates more than twice the production emissions of conventional oil-sands mining. The drilling operations in the oil sands are just one example of the increased production of “unconventional” oil, formerly hard-to-exploit sources that recent technological advances have made economically viable. Oil sands are the principal reason why Canada’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, which the government promised to cut to 558 megatons by next year, now exceed 710 megatons and are projected to reach 785 megatons by 2020.

Via http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/38888/?mod=chfeatured