Field of Science

CSWA panel: Perceptions of the Oilsands: 'Avatar' vs reality

Programme entry:  Oil sands development is frequently portrayed as one of the most destructive industrial projects on the planet. But how does this portrayal compare with what’s happening on the ground in Alberta? And what does the future look like for the oil sands? Join this expert panel for a timely “reality check.”

  • Moderator, Michal Moore, ISEEE and School of Public Policy
  • Rhona DelFrari, Cenovus Energy (Manager, Media Relations)
  • Preston McEachern, Alberta Environment 
  • Andrew Niliforuk, author of Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
  • Matt Palmer, Director of the documentary film Pay Dirt: the Unconventional Conventional

Sponsor:  Connacher Oil and Gas Limited.  Their technology = Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD):  at Algar site and Great Divide Pod One site.

Matt Palmer:  clip from movie - we really need oil and petrochemicals for almost everything, and they are not (that much) worse than other choices.  Platitudes and truisms, but nothing specific about the oil sands.

Rhona DelFrari:  Cenovus is new company (2009), almost all in oil sands.  Now about half mining, half 'in situ' = beneath the surface, leaving the surface intact.  By 2016 will be 80% in situ (= SAGD).  Steam generated at plant and piped to wellpad site, 150,000 barrels/day (~300,000/day in future).  Cost?  Water use .15 barrel fresh, most of the rest alkaline from aquifers.  Initially her emphasis is on reducing local environmental impacts, but I care more about global greenhouse gas impact. They know this, and their longterm goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Preston McEachern (Section Head - Oil Sands, Alberta Environment):  Discovering that rational arguments aren't very effective.  Map comparison of Los Angeles and Oil Sands.  Another whiz-bang graph of emissions from different petrochemical sources that appears to show that oil sands aren't worse than the other options.  But without a careful analysis of the axes and the colours, I can't evaluate it.  Water use:  problem isn't the amount but the contamination.  Recycling improves that ratio, now about 1.5 barrels of water used per barrel of bitumen extracted.  Seepage from tailings ponds not significant.  The natural river cuts right through exposed oil sands, and most of the oil that gets into the river does so naturally.  His goal:  get the good news out.

Andrew Nikiforuk:  'Canada's biggest science experiment'.  Look at peer reviewed science on emissions - 17-23% greater than conventional oil.  "Energy return on energy invested"  Conventional oil:  invest 1 barrel to find, get 300 barrels back.  SAGD: 1.5 gets 5?  Sometimes negative = not sustainable.  Canada is in climate-change denial - doing nothing to mitigate the carbon cost, and not putting any income away for the future.  Peter Lougheed's recommendations are good.

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