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Oil Sands Potential for Energy Security

The increasing use in the United States of gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products made from Canada’s oil sands has aroused opposition from Canadian and U. S. environmentalists equal in intensity to that induced by nuclear waste.  Does the largest source of Canadian oil needlessly warrant this reflexive rejection, when it can make a substantial contribution to our nation’s energy security?  Oil sands may represent as much as two-thirds of the world’s total petroleum resource, with at least 1.7 trillion barrels in the Canadian Athabasca Oil Sands (alone greater that projected oil reserves in Saudi Arabia).  In October 2009, the United States Geological Survey updated the Orinoco tar sands in Venezuela to a mean estimated recoverable value of 513 billion barrels.

Energy resources that contribute little or nothing to America’s energy independence or it’s well-being do not justify getting bothered about  Current and near future alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power sources, do very little to provide comfort to American energy independence.  Only until very recently did anyone really care that a breeder reactor planned for a site on the Clinch River in Tennessee was never built! Or that the Government’s synthetic fuels program failed! The more dependent the U.S. becomes on imported oil the more challenging it becomes to find those sources both politically and of sufficient quantity.  Canadian oil sands, on the other hand, are close and are indispensible to America’s security. 

For too long, the United States has relied heavily on a fleet of oceangoing tankers to transport oil from faraway regions of the world, including the Middle East, Africa and the Caspian Sea area of the former Soviet Union.   But crude oil from Canada’s oil sands is processed for the U.S. market just across the border.  By using a time proven method of pipelines to import crude from the vast oil-sands formations in Alberta, the United States is able to obtain a secure supply of oil, and thereby offset declining production from U.S. wells and reduce imports from unfriendly and politically-volatile countries.  Mexico, the U.S.‘s second largest supplier, is already beginning to experience serious decline in its ability to supply the U.S. with its needs.  It will, in a few years, decline to a point that it will be unable to export any oil to the U.S.  We have already seen a major supplier, Venezuela, exploring a change by soliciting oil exports to China.

Today we import 1.3 million barrels of oil-sands crude daily from Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north and the country’s largest oil supplier.  Most of the Canadian oil is going to U.S. refineries here in the Midwest, where it is processed into gasoline, diesel, jet-fuel and other products for everyday use in transportation and industry.  Oil sands are so important that imports of this energy resource are expected to reach 3 million barrels a day by 2020 and possibly as much as 6.3 million barrels by 2035.

If we were to eliminate the internal combustion engine and have less need for oil, perhaps we could forego the need to import oil.  This, of course, will not happen.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the increasing use of oil through 2030.  So it would be foolish to turn our back on Canada’s oil sands, especially since China covets the long term supply capability of oil sands and would like to replace us as Canada’s principal customer.

Despite the importance of oil sands to U.S. national security, environmental groups concerned about climate change have been unrelenting in their attacks on Midwest refineries that use it to make gasoline, diesel and other oil products.  Their goal is to shut down the refineries and block construction of oil pipelines connecting the United States and Canada.  U.S. refiners continually search for and apply improved methods successfully for the reduction of carbon emissions. Canadian oil sands operators have and are continuing to address environmental concerns and are improving operating and processing methods such as recycling waters used in the mining and processing of oil sands   As well, producers have many systems and processes in place to ensure that oil sands operations do not impact water quality in the Athabasca watershed.  Alberta Province’s environmental agencies closely regulate the amount of water that industries can use.  The oil sands industry amounts for only about five percent of Alberta’s total water allocation.  This is less than all other categories for allocation of water except for conventional oil and gas operations.

So far the Greens have succeeded in influencing the public debate. A case in point: a few years ago, Congress imposed a ban on the use of oil-sands products by U.S. Government agencies, on grounds that oil sands produce more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional crude does.  The ban drew protests from both the Canadian Government and the U.S. Defense Department, which should come as no surprise since the U.S. Air Force uses jet fuel made from oil sands.  Congress rescinded the ban, after it was pointed out oil-sands emissions are only 5 percent to 15 percent higher than those from the average barrel of crude oil processed in the United States and that oil sands account for less than one percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Instead of indiscriminately rejecting oil sands and other fuels with more carbon, opponents should direct their ire at the Government’s research agenda, which neglects funding for technology to reduce emissions.  The fact is, in recent years the oil industry’s funding for clean-energy technology has been larger than that of other industries and the Government combined.  We should insist that the Government play a larger role in bringing technology to bear on alleviating environmental problems.  That would help us identify truly important strategies for minimizing the carbon footprint of oil sands. And, as important, developing strategies that are consistent with U.S. energy security.  Therefore, it should be a no-brainer to make full use of Canadian oil sands, especially since imports from foreign countries account for 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption.

W. Jack Ford

Certified Petroleum Geologist
Certified Professional Geologist
Licensed Professional Geologist

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  • Anonymous on March 19 2010 said:
    A fantastic report Mr Ford. I also understand that a process is being used to gassify the bitumen thereby using it instead of natural gas in the process.

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