Tipping Point – The Age of the Oil Sands

Press release– Presenting: TIPPING POINT: The Age of the Oil Sands a CBC documentary film

Wednesday, August 21 @ 6 pm
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church West Brattleboro
(West Village Meeting House)
Sponsored by All Souls Church and Vermont Interfaith Power and Light

The film showing will be followed by a discussion which will include information on the pipeline that passes through the Northeast Kingdom

Open to all!

A free-will offering to benefit Vermont Interfaith Power and Light will be collected.

Light refreshments after the film (coffee, tea and some cookies etc.)
For more information, contact Betsy Hardy at 802-434-3397 or email: info@vtipl.org

Interfaith Power and Light
The mission of Interfaith Power & Light is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. This campaign intends to protect the earth’s ecosystems, safeguard the health of all Creation, and ensure sufficient, sustainable energy for all.

Global warming is one of the biggest threats facing humanity today. The very existence of life — life that religious people are called to protect — is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations. This is part of carrying out that mission

What is IPL? Interfaith Power & Light effort began in 1998 with Episcopal Power & Light in California which grew into California IPL

They developed a successful organizational model that engaged hundreds of congregations, educated thousands of people of faith about the moral and ethical mandate to address global warming, and helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws. Building on California’s success, this model has now been adopted by 38 sister state affiliates, VT being one of them.

So, what’s the Tar Sands? (Google it here: https://www.google.com/search?q=TAR+SANDS&newwindow=1&client=firefox&hs=qtC&rls=com.yahoo:en-US:official&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=B3_CUb2LAcjB4AOdzIG4DQ&ved=0CAkQ_AUoAQ&biw=1152&bih=711 ).

It’s not Fracking- for natural gas, or Oil shale –but it IS about pipelines

Oil sands, tar sands or, more technically, bituminous sands, are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit. The oil sands are loose sand or partially consolidated sandstone containing naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, and water, saturated with a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen or colloquially as tar.

(Fracking, a different thing, refers to exploding or fracturing rock to recover natural gas or oil trapped within the strata. Oil Shale is one of the types of rock they fracture to recover oil.)

Unconventional Petroleum? : You’ll be hearing this phrase more and more – The low hanging fruit has already been picked. This is what’s left, and it, unfortunately, represents the future of petroleum.

Conventional oil sources are currently preferred because they are less expensive than unconventional sources. But they’re running out.

Petroleum is a fossil fuel derived from ancient life forms. Vast quantities of these remains settled to sea or lake bottoms, mixing with sediments and being buried. As further layers settled, intense heat and pressure built up in the lower regions. This process caused the organic matter to change into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons..
There were certain warm nutrient-rich environments such as ancient Seas where the large amounts of organic material falling to the ocean floor exceeded the rate at which it could decompose. This resulted in large masses of organic material being buried under subsequent deposits such as shale formed from mud. This massive organic deposit later became heated and transformed under pressure into oil.

Sometimes, oil formed at extreme depths may migrate and become trapped at a much shallower level. The Athabasca Oil Sands are one example of this. Oil-eating bacteria biodegrade the oil that has escaped to the surface. Oil sands are reservoirs of partially biodegraded oil still in the process of escaping and being biodegraded, but they contain so much migrating oil that, although most of it has escaped, vast amounts are still present—more than can be found in conventional oil reservoirs. The lighter fractions of the crude oil have been biodegraded first, resulting in reservoirs containing an extremely heavy form of crude oil
Back to Unconventional Petroleum :

– Unconventional oil is petroleum produced or extracted using techniques other than the conventional (oil well) method. The early wells were pressurized by the accompanying gases, so all you had to do was drill in the right spot and oil gushed to the surface (gushers). This era is over. These wells are rapidly depleting world-wide. Oil prices have risen over the years, and the costs to extract oil from unconventional sources have fallen. Oil industries and governments across the globe are rushing to invest in these sources due to the increasing scarcity of conventional oil reserves. However, extracting a significant percentage of world oil production from these fossil fuels will be difficult since the extraction process takes a great deal of capital, manpower and land.

One form of U/P is what’s called Extra heavy oils, which are extremely viscous, with a consistency ranging from that of heavy molasses to a solid at room temperature. (Conventional oil is more like the grades of Maple Syrup – It even looks like syrup.)

Heavy oils and oil sands occur world-wide. The two most important deposits are the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada and the Orinoco extra heavy oil deposit in Venezuela. It is estimated by oil companies that the Athabasca and Orinoco sites (both of similar size) have as much as two-thirds of total global oil deposits.
Heavy crude oils have a density approaching or even exceeding that of water, which means it doesn’t float. As a result, they cannot be produced, transported, and refined by conventional methods. Heavy crude oils usually contain high concentrations of sulfur and metals, particularly nickel and vanadium. These properties make them difficult to pump out of the ground or through a pipeline (important) and interfere with refining. These properties also present serious environmental challenges to the growth of heavy oil production and use.

So why is it so bad?

Environmental concerns

Extracting oil (or “bitumen”) from oil/tar sand requires mining the sand and heating it in a vessel or using other methods of injecting steam and caustic soda or heated liquids into the deposit and then pumping out the oil-saturated liquid.

As with all forms of mining, there are hazardous tailings and waste generated from the varied processes of oil extraction and production.

Environmental concerns with heavy oils are similar to those with lighter oils. However, they provide additional concerns, such as the need to heat heavy oils to pump them out of the ground. Extraction also requires large volumes of water.

The environmental impacts of U/O differ depending on the type of extraction; however, there are some common trends. The mining process releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, in addition to other oxides and pollutants, as the “ore” is heated. Furthermore, there is concern about chemicals mixing with ground water (either as runoff or through seeping).

The Tar Sands are vast. Alberta’s a big place, almost as large as Texas, bigger than California. The Athabasca region of Northeast Alberta covers an area greater than New England. The actual tar sands taken together cover an area larger than Maine. We’re talking BIG!

This region is mostly lakes and Boreal (Northern) Forest. The population consists primarily of Aboriginal Identity Peoples, referred to as First Nations. The early European fur traders found their ancestors using bitumen from the vast oil sands to waterproof their birch bark canoes

Now they’re being evicted and resettled in order to create these giant open pit mines. Their forests, lakes and rivers where they traditionally hunt and fish are being destroyed by waste and runoff from the mines.
Global warming

When burned, petroleum releases carbon dioxide; a greenhouse gas. Along with the burning of coal, petroleum combustion is the largest contributor to the increase in atmospheric CO2. Atmospheric CO2 has risen steadily since the industrial revolution to current levels of over 390 ppmv, from the 180 – 300 ppmv of the prior 800 thousand years, driving global warming. The unbridled use of petroleum could potentially cause a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth. Use of oil as an energy source has caused Earth’s temperature to increase by nearly one degree Celsius.

Also, unconventional oils tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more carbon dioxide when burned.

A 2009 study by CERA estimated that production from Canada’s oil sands emits “about 5–15% more carbon dioxide, over the “well-to-wheels” lifetime analysis of the fuel, than average crude oil.” IEA figures show that carbon dioxide emissions from the tar sands are 20% higher than average emissions from oil. With coal’s CO2 emissions about one-third higher than convention oil’s, this would make the oil sands’ emissions equal to about 90% of the CO2 released from coal.

Unconventional oils tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more carbon dioxide when burned.

Sources of unconventional oil will be increasingly relied upon as conventional oil becomes more expensive due to depletion.

Extracting a significant percentage of world oil production from these fossil fuels will be difficult since the extraction process takes a great deal of capital, manpower and land. Another minor constraint is energy for heat and electricity generation, currently coming from natural gas, which in recent years has seen a surge in production and a corresponding drop in price. A bitumen upgrader is under construction at Fort McMurray to supply syngas to replace natural gas, and there were proposals to build nuclear reactors using fuel from nearby Uranium City, Saskatchewan to supply steam and electricity.

At rate of production projected for 2015, about 3 million barrels per day, the Athabasca oil sands reserves would last less than 160 years. The oil extraction process requires either strip mining or in-situ processing, steam and caustic soda . The process is more energy intensive than conventional oil and thus more expensive.
(Much acknowledgement to Wikipedia)

So, how does this affect us in Vermont?
As environmentalists protest a western pipeline, northern New England towns also worry that a pipeline that crosses the region will soon carry tar sands oil from western Canada. Their concerns were heightened recently when the CEO of a local pipeline company told Vermont lawmakers he’s looking for new business — including shipping the controversial heavy crude.

Oil pipelines have become a focal point in North America for protesters who want to fight climate change. Environmentalists have opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, that would carry tar sands oil from western Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. And in New England, another pipeline proposal is sparking controversy. Oil companies there are looking at reversing the flow of an existing line.

The line is now used to ship oil west to refineries in Montreal, but the likelihood that operators will reverse the flow to carry tar sands oil from western Canada became more real recently. Larry Wilson, the chief executive of the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, told Vermont lawmakers he wants new customers for the line that cuts 236 miles across northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. And that includes the possibility of reversing our pipeline, and it includes the possibility of moving oil from the western Canadian oil sands.

The Vermont legislature is considering new environmental permit requirements if the pipeline is changed, but Wilson said pipelines are much safer than ships, trucks or rail to transport oil: “The western Canadian crude does not present to us any substantial concern as far as increasing risk or hazards.”

But that’s not how opponents see it.

Environmentalists say the tar sands oil is more corrosive than regular crude and thus poses a bigger threat for aging pipelines. Except for snowmobilers, who ride the right of way, the pipeline has lain almost unnoticed under the ground for six decades. But activists are now using it to focus attention on climate change. They say extracting tar sands oil releases more greenhouse gases than drilling for conventional crude, and they want New England to block the shipment so the tar sands stay in the ground.

The larger concern is the globe. Certainly, local environmental damage is significant, but the globe’s health is probably more significant.

In Portland, Maine, more than 1,000 protesters turned out in January to oppose the potential tar sands project. The protests in the streets were followed by petitions in town meetings.

The government of Canada is also trying to quell the concern over the pipeline. In recent weeks, officials from the Canadian consul’s office have visited town boards in Maine and legislative committees in Vermont.

(From: NPR News, John Dillon in Montpelier, March 04, 2013)
From a comment to above by “Bob H”:
The increased viscosity relative to the crude now using the pipeline will require higher pumping pressures. At the same time, the intrinsic corrosiveness of the tar sands oil would be much greater than the current crude. Combine these two factors, add the fact that the pipeline is fairly old and you have a recipe for failure.

The pipeline path takes it through mostly rural areas with limited industrial development.(And several bodies of water, including the Connecticut River and Lake Sebago). A spill in most of these places will cause major problems for at least the local area, and possibly have broader consequences.

Will the pipeline company be held fully responsible for complete cleanup of any spills, including groundwater remediation?

Will they do preventive reinforcement and repair work before any tar sands oil is pumped?
Will they be required to implement a rigorous spill prevention program, including new monitoring technology?
Will they be required to compensate public and private water users for surface water and/or groundwater contamination in the event of a spill?

Summary of the film (From CBC-TV) :

For years, residents of the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan, down the Athabasca River from the oil sands, have been plagued by rare forms of cancer. They were concerned that toxins from oil sands production might be to blame. Industry and government, meanwhile, claimed production in the oil sands contributed zero pollution to the Athabasca River. But in 2010, new and independent research measured pollution in waters flowing through the oil sands and discovered higher-than-expected levels of toxins, including arsenic, lead and mercury, coming from industrial plants. Leading the research was renowned freshwater scientist Dr. David Schindler. At the same time, the leaders of tiny Fort Chipewyan took their battle to the boardrooms of global oil companies, demanding change. Leading the campaign was Dene Elder Francois Paulette, whose battles with Ottawa a generation ago launched the era of modern land claims. From New York, to Copenhagen, to Oslo, to the oil sands themselves, the camera followed Paulette on his relentless search for allies. When he finally enlisted the support of Avatar director James Cameron, Paulette created a storm of controversy for the Alberta’s oil sands industry. By the end of 2010, Schindler’s alarming discovery of toxic pollution and the media attention Cameron’s visit had raised was putting federal and provincial environmental policy under serious pressure. Separate reports by Canada’s Auditor General, the Royal Society of Canada, and a panel of experts appointed by then Environment Minister Jim Prentice revealed a decade of incompetent pollution monitoring, paid for by industry, in Alberta’s oil sands. The documentary’s climax shows how Professor Schindler’s research findings, and the determination of Fort Chipewyan residents, led to change. In December 2010, the special scientific review by the high-level federal panel declared environmental monitoring standards in the oil sands seriously flawed. In a dramatic reversal of their previous position, both the Federal and Alberta governments announced steps to improve their pollution monitoring. The age of innocence for the oil sands is over.

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