Tag Archives: oil sands

Tar Sands from Canada to Europe

dirty deals

Canada and the US have threatened to pull out of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] trade talks unless the EU ignores the massive emissions of oil from tar sands – and the EU is collapsing under the pressure…For five long years the federal government and the oil industry have lobbied against the European Union labeling oilsands (also called tar sands) bitumen as ‘dirty oil’ in its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).  A new report [authored by environmental groups] reveals the how recent involvement of the US in the lobby offensive to keep the EU market open for bitumen exports has tipped the scales in favour of oilsands proponents….

The report shows the EU Fuel Quality Directive, a piece of legislation designed to reduce global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU’s transportation sector, is unlikely to acknowledge fuels from different sources of oil – conventional oil, oilsands, oil shale – have different carbon footprints.  All oil is the same – no matter how great the disparity in emissions  Instead all oils will more than likely be treated as having the same GHG emissions intensity ‘value’ in the Directive. This is exactly what Canada, the oil industry and now the US have been pushing for…

The EU has not fallen for the federal government’s argument that bitumen produces only marginally more GHG emissions than conventional oil in extraction, processing, and use.  A European Commission study found bitumen’s carbon footprint is between 12% – 40% higher than conventional oil as so much of the bitumen produced from the tar sands is burnt to fuel the energy-intensive extraction process.  The report reveals trade, not science, is the cause of the EU backing off from implementing the Fuel Quality Directive as it was originally meant to be implemented.

The US in some ways has been more open [than Canada] about its lobbying against the Fuel Quality Directive.  US Trade Representative Michael Froman confirmed he “raised these issues [of the FQD implementation] with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIP).” The TTIP is the highly controversial trade agreement between the US and the EU currently under negotiation.  European Commission documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe reveal the US trade missions has “substantive concerns” with the Fuel Quality Directive singling out fuels produced from bitumen as having a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil.    Like Canada and the oil industry, the US wants all oil – regardless of GHG emissions – to be treated the same as conventional oil in the Directive…Recently eleven members of US Congress sent a letter to the US trade mission expressing their concerns “that official US trade negotiations could undercut the EU’s commendable efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”

Excerpts, Derek LeahyIgnore tar sands emissions! EU buckles under US, Canada pressure in TTIP talks, Ecologist, July 23, 2014

Economics and Environmental Impact of Oil Shale Production

oil shale combustion. Image from wikipedia

[A] second shale revolution is in prospect, in which cleaner and more efficient ways are being found to squeeze the oil and gas out of the stone. The Jordanian government said on June 12th that it had reached agreement with Enefit, an Estonian company, and its partners on a $2.1 billion contract to build a 540MW shale-fuelled power station. Frustratingly for Jordan, as it eyes its rich, oil-drenched Gulf neighbours, the country sits on the world’s fifth-largest oil-shale reserves but has to import 97% of its energy needs.

In Australia, Queensland Energy Resources, another oil-shale company, has just applied for permission to upgrade its demonstration plant to a commercial scale. Production is expected to start in 2018. Questerre Energy, a Canadian company, also said recently that it would start work on a commercial demonstration project, in Utah in the United States.

In all these projects, the shale is “cooked” cheaply, cleanly and productively in oxygen-free retorts to separate much of the oil and gas. In Enefit’s process the remaining solid is burned to raise steam, which drives a generator. So the process produces electricity, natural gas (a big plus in Estonia, a country otherwise dependent on Russian supplies) and synthetic crude, which can be used to make diesel and aviation fuel. The leftover ash can be used to make cement. Enefit’s chief executive, Sandor Liive, says his plants, the first of which started production in December 2012, should be profitable so long as oil prices stay above $75 a barrel (North Sea Brent oil was around $113 this week).

Although the new methods of exploiting the rock are cleaner than old ones, environmentalists still have plenty to worry about. Oil shale varies hugely in quality. Estonia’s is clean, Jordan’s has a high sulphur content, Utah’s is laden with arsenic. Like opencast coal mining, digging up oil shale scars the landscape. Enefit has solved that in green-minded Estonia, by landscaping and replacing the topsoil. Other countries may be less choosy.

Some of the world’s biggest energy firms have also experimented with mining and processing oil shale, only to give up, after finding that it took so much energy that the sums did not add up. However, Shell says it is making progress with a new method it is trying, also in Jordan, in which the shale is heated underground with an electric current to extract the oil.

These rival technologies have yet to prove their reliability at large scale—and they are far from cheap. Mr Liive reckons it will cost $100m to get a pilot project going in Utah (where his firm has bought a disused oil-shale mine), and another $300m to reach a commercial scale. A fall in the oil price could doom the industry, as happened in the 1980s when a lot of shale mines went out of business…America this week loosened its ban on crude exports. If the second shale revolution succeeds, it will have a lot more oil to sell.

Oil shale: Flaming rocks, Economist, June  28, 2014, at 58

Oil Sands of Canada; sticky metal pipes

Canada’s oil sands contain some 170 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered economically with today’s technology (and perhaps ten times that in total). Canada thus has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. And since most oil-rich nations’ reserves are under state control, Canada has the largest reserves that private companies are free to invest in—more than half of the global total, reckons Ken Hughes, Alberta’s energy minister.

Other countries welcome the idea of plentiful energy from a stable democracy. It could reduce the rich world’s dependence on the Middle East. There are “no bribes or body bags”, grins an oil-industry booster. And the potential is immense. A new study by the Alberta Geological Survey estimates that the province has huge resources in its shale beds as well as its oil sands: 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 420 billion barrels of oil—numbers comparable to America’s.  However, Canada’s output of 3.5m barrels of oil a day is less than half that of America. (America’s output is set to exceed Saudi Arabia’s; see article.) Several problems hobble Canadian energy: geology, capital, people and pipes.

First, geology. Canadian oil is hard to extract. It mostly comes in the form of bitumen, which is “hard as a hockey puck” at 10°C, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), an industry body, puts it. If it is far below ground, it must be blasted with steam to make it flow, and then pumped out. This process (known as “steam-assisted gravity drainage”) was developed in Alberta. In the past decade, with high oil prices, it has made the oil sands economical to exploit. But precariously so: the best projects break even when oil is $30 a barrel, but many new ones need it to be $80 or more. (West Texas Intermediate is currently $85.)

See also Oi Sands Rush

Canada gets less than it should for its oil because it lacks enough pipelines. Environmentalists oppose them, arguing that pipes leak (which is always possible) and that Canada’s heavy oil causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than other oil (which is true, but not by much). President Barack Obama has delayed the approval of a pipeline called Keystone XL, which would move Canadian oil to America’s Gulf coast. A decision is expected soon.

Alex Pourbaix of TransCanada, the firm behind the Keystone pipeline, insists that the project will be good for both countries. Canada forgoes a fortune—perhaps $20 a barrel—because it cannot get its oil to the sea. Canadian gas sells at a discount, too: North American prices are far lower than those in Asia.  Another proposed pipeline, Northern Gateway, would carry oil to Canada’s west coast, whence it could be shipped to Asia. Canada would benefit from having a choice of customers. But the government of British Columbia, and various aboriginal groups, have yet to say yes.

To exploit its hydrocarbons, Canada needs capital: some $50 billion-60 billion a year, on recent trends. Such sums are “far more than Canadian capital markets can raise,” says Dave Collyer of the CAPP. Canada gets plenty of foreign investment: Syncrude, one of the biggest oil-sands developers, is a joint venture that includes American, Chinese and Japanese partners. But lately the country has grown frostier towards foreign capital.

In October Canada’s federal government temporarily blocked a $5.2 billion bid by Petronas, Malaysia’s state energy giant, for Progress Energy Resources, a Canadian natural-gas company. It has yet to approve a $15 billion offer by CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned firm, for Nexen, a Canadian oil-and-gas firm. A deadline passed last week; a decision may come next month. Mr Hughes says he is keen on foreign investment so long as foreign firms abide by the same rules as Canadians; but it is not up to the provincial government.

The other big bottleneck is human capital. Hardly anyone lives near the oil sands, so labour must be imported, from other parts of Canada and from abroad. People from 127 countries live in Fort McMurray, says Ken Chapman of the Oil Sands Developers’ Group. They speak 69 languages. The Walmart in town looks like the United Nations, except that all the shivering Africans are buying woolly hats. Mr Hughes expects to see a skills shortfall of 100,000 people in Alberta by 2017. Canada’s immigration rules are more liberal than America’s, but firms still gripe about delays. An Irish worker in Fort McMurray complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.

Companies poach staff from each other, bidding up labour costs. It would be easier to attract workers to Fort McMurray if the town were more liveable; a one-bedroom flat can cost $2,000 a month. To build more homes, however, the town must wrestle with provincial red tape—and also attract legions of builders, plumbers and electricians, all at inflated wages.

Working conditions in the oil sands are tough. Touch a metal pipe with your bare hand at minus 40 and it sticks. “It’s not for everybody,” shrugs an oil-firm boss. At remote work camps, companies provide hot food, warm cabins, broadband and squash courts. All this is costly. Many firms make equipment elsewhere and truck it in, so that fewer people have to toil in the cold. Some are hoping dramatically to raise the proportion of man-hours worked off-site.

With so many bottlenecks and a volatile oil price, firms are growing cautious. Suncor Energy and Canadian Natural Resources, among others, are putting new investments on hold. “It’s the uncertainty,” says Marcel Coutu, the boss of Canadian Oil Sands, a firm that owns 37% of Syncrude. “No one knows when or whether those pipelines will be built.”

Canadian energy: The sands of grime, Economist, Nov. 17, 2012, at 62

Oil Sands Rush and the New Pipelines: Canada

Oil production from the tar sands is set to rise from 2m barrels a day (b/d) to 3.3m by 2020, or from 58% to 72% of Canada’s total oil output. Getting this oil to market is a mounting worry for Canada’s energy industry and for Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. That is because the necessary infrastructure is opposed both by local communities and by greens, who want to halt development of the tar sands. Per barrel, the extraction of oil from bitumen emits between three and four times as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as conventional oil does, according to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank in Calgary. But other estimates are much lower….

The Obama administration has withheld approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take oil to Gulf coast refiners. (TransCanada, Keystone’s promoter, still hopes for approval.) Mr Harper has courted China as an alternative market for the oil, but that depends on approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, a C$5.5 billion ($5.4 billion) 1,177km twin pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat in British Columbia. The route crosses the land of 50 or so First Nations bands (indigenous tribes). More than 4,000 people have registered to speak at the environmental hearings, which began in January.

Last month another energy firm, Kinder Morgan, said it would spend $4.1 billion to double the capacity of the Trans-Mountain to Vancouver, the only existing line to Canada’s west coast. It hopes to start work in 2016. Vancouver’s mayor opposes the idea, worrying that tourism will be wrecked by tanker traffic and spills.

The government is pulling out all the stops to get these projects approved. The budget bill includes sweeping changes to the cumbersome procedures that govern environmental approval of energy projects. These now involve up to 40 federal departments and agencies. Under the bill, only those directly involved would be able to intervene in hearings; fishery habitat will no longer automatically be considered; and most assessments will have to be completed within 18 months. The federal government would have the power to overrule the energy board, but also to cede the assessment process to the provinces. These changes could quicken the prospects of big hydropower schemes in Manitoba, Labrador, British Columbia and Quebec, aimed at exporting electricity to the United States.

But pipelines are the government’s priority. That is because natural-gas exports, long the mainstay of the energy industry, are threatened by shale gas in the United States (they have fallen by 5% over the past year). While there are legitimate environmental worries, replacing gas exports with tar-sands oil is vital for economic growth, argues Matthew Akman, an analyst at Scotiabank. Investment is pouring into the tar sands, but potential oil exports will outstrip pipeline capacity by 2015.  Unless, that is, existing pipelines are rejigged—and not just Line 9. TransCanada’s 3,000km main line has carried Alberta’s gas to Ontario and Montreal for more than 50 years, but now runs at less than half of capacity. Converting the line to oil, and adding a spur to a refinery at Quebec City, would cost more than C$5 billion and take several years. But it could still beat the Northern Gateway, and be politically more attractive. Refiners in eastern Canada currently use imported crude costing $20-30 a barrel more than western Canadian oil.

The budget bill also includes money to investigate whether green charties are engaging in political activities incompatible with their status. But there are risks—not least to Canada’s international image—in demonising environmentalists. The arguments for developing the tar sands are strong, but the opponents cannot be simply shrugged aside.

Energy in Canada, The great pipeline battle, Economist, May 26, 2012

Mining the Oil Sands of Congo, ENI. More of the Resource curse?

Italian oil major Eni will launch a pilot of its estimated 500 million and 2.5 billion barrels reserves of recoverable oil sands project in the Republic of Congo, Eni’s chief executive said Thursday (Oct.6, 2011).”Eni-Congo’s great future project for Congo is the oil sands. We have put in place a small pilot which will start next year,” Paolo Scaroni said after meeting Congo’s president Denis Sassou N’Guesso on Thursday in Brazzaville. Eni signed a deal in 2008 with the government of Congo to explore and develop the oil sands field with a surface area of about 1790 square km, in the south of the oil-producing Central African nation. Eni had said it planned to invest 3 billion in the project over the four-year period from 2008-2011. The project has however drawn under criticism from environmental groups which warned that exploiting the non-conventional oil in tar sands could destroy Congo’s rainforest and bio-diversity. Scaroni said the Congo project will be carried out with respect to the environment. “All this will be done, taking into account the environment, which is the number one priority of our activity in Congo,” he said. Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top crude oil producers. Eni and French group Total and the main operators.

Eni to start Congo pilot oil sands project in 2012. Reuters, Oct 6, 2011

Resource curse