Other than desperation, is there much to recommend Canadian tar sands as a fuel source?
Not according to Matthew Tejada of Air Alliance Houston. During a talk at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church last night, he described the proposed Transcanada Keystone XL Pipeline Project in dire terms.
And on hearing Tejada, we kept thinking of that easy analogy: our society is a junkie, and oil is our dope. Tejada talked about how back in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a needle in the Texas earth and light sweet crude came leaping out of the ground. This stuff was easy to get and easy to make into gasoline and other products. It was a party drug for the pretty people...
Canadian tar sands are heavy and sour. They are hard to access and to refine. It is only in the past few years of high oil prices that tar sands have even become viable as a fuel source, and should the price of oil drop below $80 a barrel, they will cease to be viable once more. (This kinda reminds us of the junkie tearing up his sofa looking for that last little ball of black tar scag, or the cokehead snorting his carpet in hopes of hoovering up those last few grains from last night's party...)
And to hear Tejada tell it, this might just be, as the accompanying literature describes it, the most destructive project in the world, and one whose brunt will be partially borne right here in Houston.
Here's a quick and dirty primer on a slow and filthy process...
Step one: First you need to clear-cut vast acreages of Alberta's northern boreal forest. Tejada calls these woods the "rainforest of North America." Some estimates claim that left unchecked, this project will eventually consume a forest the size of Florida.
Step two, option A: About 20 percent of the oil is obtained through open-pit mining. The tar sands lie deep beneath these woods, so one form of extraction requires fleets of giant excavators and house-sized, diesel-belching dump trucks. For every barrel of oil produced using this method, about four tons of earth must be excavated.
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Step two, option B: In situ extraction -- used for deposits too deep for open-pit mining -- involves injecting vast amounts of steam into tar sands deposits, thus melting the fuel-rich bitumen away from the impurities. This technique uses huge amounts of water, and creates seas of toxic byproducts called tailings. These visible-from-space ponds create deadly attractive nuisances for wildlife; in one 2008 incident a flock of 1,600 ducks landed in one and 1,597 perished within minutes.
Step three: The bitumen from both sources is refined into synthetic crude and piped across America, mostly to Houston and Port Arthur, where still more refinining is needed. All told, three times the global warming pollution goes into each barrel of synthetic crude produced from tar sands as it does from more traditional sources. One byproduct we can expect to deal with here is an increase in rotten egg-reeking sulfur dioxide in the air, according to Tejada.
Tejada also points with concern to the White Stallion coal plant in southern Matagorda County. He notes that it is permitted to burn not just a relatively clean Kentucky coal, but also petroleum coke, a ghastly, highly toxic and dangerous by-product of the crude oil refining process. He notes that refining tar sands oil spawns vast quantities of pet coke, and wonders just how clean that alleged clean coal plant will be.
So yeah, tar sands sounds like fun stuff. And while we're amid that slow-motion nightmare in the Gulf right now, we'd like to know if there's any good reason we shouldn't desperately be pouring resources into alternative energy R&D instead of this desperate last wring of an increasingly dry sponge.