Oil From Alberta's Tar Sands

In the July 27th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, in an interview with Al Gore, he is quoted as saying the following “The fact that oil is beginning to get more expensive more quickly will contribute to the realization of how dysfunctional our current pattern is. Take the tar sands of western Canada. For every barrel of oil they extract there, they have to use enough natural gas to heat a family’s home for four days.”

Well according to the US Geologic Survey’s “World Energy Assessment Team,” in a useful table of conversion factors, “6,000 cubic feet of gas equals one barrel of oil.” We’ve checked this conversion on other websites and in some cases it’s 10% low and in some cases 10% high, but that’s due to what assumptions you make about the grade of oil and gas being compared.

To continue, the average American household, during the winter heating season which lasts from October through March, uses on average 70 “MCF” (MCF equals “thousand cubic feet”) of natural gas. This estimate comes courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Energy Information Administration on a consumer information page they have “Natural Gas, What Consumers Should Know.”

This means the average American household that uses natural gas to heat their homes, uses in a four day winter period about 1,600 cubic feet of natural gas. And that means that the energy required to extract crude oil from tar sands using natural gas consumes about 25% of the energy recovered. The energy payback according to Al Gore for oil extraction from tar sands is nearly 4 to 1.

It’s important as we debate what to do about global warming – not that we’re experiencing global warming, which we probably are – but what to do about it, not to resort to rhetorical flourishes that won’t stand up to basic quantitative reasoning. An on-site energy payback of 4 to 1 may not be as good as that for light crude in Saudi Arabia, but it’s far better than what you’re going to get with ethanol in Iowa.

With oil prices of $70 per barrel, not only will clean alternative energy be viable, but heavy oil such as that locked in the tar sands of Alberta will also be viable. And taking the position that heavy oil is not energy positive or economically viable is fine, but that position should be taken with solid arguments, not rhetoric.

And I guess I’d still like to know why anthropogenic CO2, which is only 3-5% of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year, cannot be absorbed by natural carbon sinks ala massive reforestation.

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