More than 20 years and $600 million dollars after NASA space scientist William Bourcki began to explore the galaxy looking for extraterrestrial life, he announced at a recent conference of his peers in Mountain View, CA, that his team had found their first planet orbiting a star in the habitable zone, that is, at the proper distance to have water—necessary for life. Similar to Earth, though bigger, scientists say the planet’s temperature averages about 72 degrees. Six hundred light years away, it orbits its own sun every 290 days. Bourcki and his team found it using the Kepler space telescope, which was launched three years ago and remains in orbit around the sun. Scientists are taking the discovery of a potentially habitable planet seriously, even though the fastest modern rocket ship would take 24 million years to get there.
“Why wouldn’t you? If you think about the way we’ve taken care of our own planet, if we all piled into the family spaceship right now and didn’t stop for bathroom breaks until we got to this new place, we could still catch the last act.”
The Carbon Bomb
The Athabasca River originates from the melting snow and ice of the Athabasca Glacier, one of six major glaciers extending from the Columbia Icefield in the Rocky Mountains near Jasper, Alberta. The river flows northeast across Alberta for over 1,300 km before flowing through the Peace-Athabasca Delta into Lake Athabasca. (The word “Athabasca” in Woodland Cree, one of the indigenous people inhabiting the area in the 1600′s when Europeans arrived to trade for furs, means “[where] there are plants one after the other.”) . After leaving the mountains, the Athabasca River flows through rolling foothills, dominated by trembling aspen, balsam poplar, lodgepole pine, and white and black spruce. The lower reaches of the river are heavily forested with spruce, fir, pines and larch and with vast bogs and muskegs, the boreal forest region.
Near the town of Fort McMurry in northern Alberta, the Athabasca river exposes the McMurray Formation, a layer of shale, sandstone, and oil-impregnated sands that contains the Athabasca oil sands. Alberta’s oil sands occur in three areas over Northern Albert covering over 140,000 sq. km. – larger than the state of Florida – and contain the second largest known accumulation of hydrocarbons in the world after the Arabian peninsula. An estimated 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels of oil are trapped in a complex mixture of sand, water and clay.
Alberta’s geological history was instrumental in forming the oil sands. The oil is derived from concentrations of marine plants and animals (mostly algae) that formed in depressions in the shallow sea bed during the Paleozoic Era (about 600 million years ago) when Alberta was repeatedly submerged in shallow oceans. Bacteria removed most of the oxygen and nitrogen leaving primarily hydrogen and carbon molecules. Tremendous heat and pressure caused by the deposition of layer upon layer of rock, silt and sand led to decomposition and reorganization of the hydrogen bonds to form oil.
An open-pit mine in the Athabasca oil sands region.
Source: Suncor Energy
The oil is mined from the surface by first removing the overburden and the muskeg, a water-soaked area of decaying plant material that is one to three meters thick and lies on top of the overburden. After all of the overburden is removed, the oil sand is exposed and can be mined.
Mining machinery load the sand into trucks that haul it to a nearby processing plant where it is crushed and treated with hot water and chemicals to liberate the bitumen. The oil is a thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature, it is much like cold molasses. The liberated bitumen is separated from the water, blended with naptha and pumped through the pipe line for further refining. Currently the mining operation produces 1.13 million barrels of oil per day.
Due to the more energy intensive extraction process using hot water to separate the sand and oil, the operation uses three times more energy and releases three times more emissions than standard oil recovery methods. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the “production” of conventional oil. In addition, vast amounts of water are needed to separate the extracted bitumen from the sand, silt and clay: 3 barrels of water for each barrel of oil or approximately 400 million gallons per day. The water is dumped into tailing ponds.
After the final product is shipped by pipeline to refineries, an environmental footprint remains. This can include open pit mine holes, process water dykes and emissions. Minimizing the impact to the environment begins by understanding the complexity of eco-systems. In Alberta, this form of oil extraction completely destroys the boreal forest, the bogs, the rivers as well as the natural landscape. The mining industry believes that the boreal forest will eventually colonize the reclaimed lands, yet 30 years after the opening of the first open pit mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, no land is considered by the Alberta Government as having been “restored.”
Expanding production to take advantage of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Alberta through the Midwestern United States to Huston and Port Arthur on the Gulf Coast would mean an increase of 900,000 barrels per day, doubling the current shipment rate. The tar sands oil transported by the XL pipeline would be further refined in Texas for export as diesel and other products for South America and Europe. By opening the supply bottleneck to expanded markets, once the XL pipeline in completed, customers in the Mid-West can expect to pay the equivalent of $2-3 more per-barrel of crude oil than they are now for gasoline refined from tar sands oil.
The owners of the proposed pipeline, Transcanada, say the project will create much needed jobs and provide a secure source of energy for the United States.
The National Resource Defense Council charges that the expansion of the Keystone pipeline would undermine US commitment to a clean energy economy. They are also concerned about the potential contamination of the Ogalla aquifer, one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, by a leak in the pipeline.
Indigenous Peoples and Native Americans oppose the project because they feel it eradicates the local environment and contributes to global climate/environment disruption.
Environmentalists claim that constructing the pipeline is lighting the fuse to the carbon bomb. Due to the extra energy required for extraction and refining it, the Alberta tar sands could generate and extra 1.15 billion tons of green-house-gasses (GHG) over conventional oil. The GHGs would raise the atmospheric CO2 levels more than 200 ppm and make it almost impossible to avert global warming climate disaster.
In their seminal paper, “Target Atmosphere CO2: where should humanity aim?” NASA climate scientist J. Hansen, et. al., attempt to answer the question of what level of atmospheric man-made CO2 can be allowed without precipitating extreme climate disruptions—the “tipping point.”
The earth’s climate’s sensitivity varies as it grows warmer or colder: at lower temperatures a negative feedback loop results in more sea ice forming, leading to a “snowball” earth; at higher temperatures a positive feedback loop leads to an ice free planet. Currently the earth is at a “steady state” between the two feedback loop extremes. Relatively recent ice ages were instigated by slow changes in the earth’s orbit, especially by the spin-axis relative to the orbital plane and the precession of equinoxes. In the long-term, over centuries to millenia, recently emitted CO2 emissions will decline slowly if emissions are ended. But, if the atmospheric temperature increases much more, the positive feedback loop will release CH4 and CO2 from tundra, potentially leading to runaway temperature increases. The authors’ recommendation is to target 350 ppm.
We have already passed 390 ppm and are climbing 2 ppm/year, and because of inertia, the climate system has not yet responded to the present conditions. If the CO2 level becomes greater than 450 ppm, the authors predict an ice-free planet, with all that entails—environmental and species destruction, including the loss of an estimated two-thirds of the earths human population.
Because a large fraction of fossil fuel CO2 from the carbon cycle remains in the air for a long time – 25% for several centuries — a moderate delay in decreasing fossil fuel use will not appreciably affect climate change. But for the climate to remain hospitable to humans, most remaining fossil fuel carbon must remain in the ground.
“Humanity’s task of moderating human-caused global climate change is urgent. Ocean and ice sheet inertias provide a buffer delaying full response by centuries, but there is a danger that human-made forcings could drive the climate system beyond tipping points such that change proceeds out of our control…
“The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.” [1 p. 12-13]
In November, 2011, the Obama administration announced it would delay the decision on the controversial cross-country oil pipeline in order to assess a shift in its route, effectively putting off a politically vexing decision until after next year’s election. However, this decision appears unlikely to substantially disrupt Canada’s continued development of the oil fields.
The governance of the oil sands is evenly divided between that of Canada, which is responsible for commerce, trade and taxation, and Alberta, which “owns” the resources in the providence. Both governments are aligned with industry in the development of the oil sands. Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper is actively promoting development. Critics charge that the public has been systematically shut out of meaningfully influencing decisions about the oil.
Even if construction of the XL pipeline can be permanently halted, with numerous other energy projects currently underway elsewhere, including Mongolia, Montana and Australia, , it appears doubtful that even temporary interruption of construction of the XL pipeline would significantly affect world-wide fossil fuel use and its effects on the climate and local and world population. The forces driving the burning of fossil fuels are not located in the access to the resources, but in demand for their use. It is futile to attempt to control their use by interrupting supply. Fossil fuel energy sources will always be able to find a way around blockades. Trying to stop the burning of fossil fuels by halting development of energy resources similar to the construction the XL pipeline is essentially like a game of Whac-a-Mole.
What are the forces driving demand for energy? We will examine these forces and possible ways to influence them in Part II of this series.
Note: Recently President Obama gave Transamerica the green light to develop the southern portion of the XL pipeline.
1 Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? by James Hansen, et. al., The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2008, 2, 217-231