Canadians make their case for oil exports

Oil from Alberta’s tar sands beats Middle Eastern imported crude on environmental metrics, Canadians argue.

(By NEAL ST. ANTHONY, Star Tribune)

Minnesota imports most of the oil and natural gas that helps drive our economic engine from Canada, the Saudi Arabia of the north.

“And you don’t need a U.S. battle group to protect it,” Ronald Liepert, the Alberta oil minister, reminded me last week on a visit to Minneapolis.

Canada, largely because of Alberta’s vast deposits of oil sands, has the second-largest known oil reserves in the world.

Our No. 1 trading partner to the north, which also is a healthy democracy and buys $4 billion-plus worth of Minnesota goods annually, provides about a 25 percent of the more than 12 million barrels per day of imported oil that Americans consume.

Canada, through its western oil sands, is increasing daily production from 2 million to 3 million barrels over the next several years. Although it doesn’t bear the higher risks of deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands production still presents significant environmental concerns.

That’s why Liepert and Alberta’s top diplomat in Washington, Gary Mar, are part of a Canadian offensive to address concerns in America about those “dirty tar sands” that critics say are an environmental disaster. The thick bitumen must be heated with steam from natural-gas fired boilers in order to strain the thick oil and send it by pipeline to our Pine Bend or other U.S. refineries.

Our Take:
We believe most Minnesotans would prefer not to be a party to the longterm environmental degradation that Alberta provincials are trading for jobs and an economic boost.

When you balance the equation of energy needs and environmental impacts, Minnesota -made ethanol comes out ahead of oil whether it comes from Saudi wells so sweet they almost bubble up pure gasoline, or Alberta tar sands.

Here’s a report on the tar sand mining process that appeared in National Geographic in 2009:
“Getting oil from oil sands is simple but not easy. The giant electric shovels that rule the mines have hardened steel teeth that each weigh a ton, and as those teeth claw into the abrasive black sand 24/7, 365 days a year, they wear down every day or two; a welder then plays dentist to the dinosaurs, giving them new crowns. The dump trucks that rumble around the mine, hauling 400-ton loads from the shovels to a rock crusher, burn 50 gallons of diesel fuel an hour; it takes a forklift to change their tires, which wear out in six months. And every day in the Athabasca Valley, more than a million tons of sand emerges from such crushers and is mixed with more than 200,000 tons of water that must be heated, typically to 175°F, to wash out the gluey bitumen. At the upgraders, the bitumen gets heated again, to about 900°F, and compressed to more than 100 atmospheres—that’s what it takes to crack the complex molecules and either subtract carbon or add back the hydrogen the bacteria removed ages ago. That’s what it takes to make the light hydrocarbons we need to fill our gas tanks. It takes a stupendous amount of energy. In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels, can use up to twice as much energy as mining, because it requires so much steam.”

The area in Alberta where these tar sands can be found is 1,356 square miles, roughly the size of North Carolina. In 2009, when the area was producing a quarter of the proposed 3 million barrels a day, Canadian oil concerns had already flattened 150 square miles of northern old growth forest and left a moonscape of dust and toxic tailing ponds, according to the National Geographic report which mentioned an incident in which a flock of mallard ducks mistook one of the tailing ponds for a pristine northern lake and made the fatal decision to land in the polluted waters.

Increasing Minnesota’s use of ethanol may or may not slow down this ecological disaster, but perhaps less of the dirt will be on our hands.

Read the National Geographic article on Canadian tar sands:


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