Issue Report: Oil sands

What are the pros and cons of extracting oil from "oil sands"?

Tar sands, extra heavy oil, bituminous sands, or oil sands, are a type of bitumen deposit. The sands are naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. They are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela. Tar sands reserves have only recently been considered to be part of the world’s oil reserves, as higher oil prices and new technology enable them to be profitably extracted and upgraded to usable products. They are often referred to as unconventional oil or crude bitumen, in order to distinguish the bitumen extracted from tar sands from the free-flowing hydrocarbon mixtures known as crude oil traditionally produced from oil wells. Making liquid fuels from tar sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. If combustion of the final products is included, the so-called “Well to Wheels” approach, tar sands extraction, upgrade and use emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude. This, along with the local environmental and human-health impacts have contributed to the debate surrounding the resource. While many welcome it as a way to stave off high oil prices and ensure greater energy security, others question whether it worsens an addiction to oil that may push back the development of green energy technologies. These and other pros and cons are considered below.

Energy security: Do oil sands improve energy security?

Hydrocarbons required in forseeable future, including oil sands

Tom Huffaker. "The case for optimism: Some perspective on oil sands." San Francisco Chronicle. October 09, 2009

“It also can’t be denied that for the foreseeable future, the world, California included, is going to require energy from hydrocarbons. Global oil demand continues to grow, because the rest of the world would like to live as well as we do in North America. We need to increase our use of renewable fuels, and we will, but the fact remains that we’re going to require energy from all sources, and oil sands has an important role to play in the North American energy supply mix.”

Better to import oil from Canadian sands than from corrupt regimes

"Canada's energy industry. Tarred with the same brush." The Economist. Aug 5th 2010: "

“‘A GOOD neighbour lends you a cup of sugar,’ read an ad in the Washington Post last month. ‘A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.’ Ed Stelmach, the premier of the energy-rich province of Alberta, certainly knows how to make the case for Canadian petroleum. Buying from Canada neither props up an authoritarian regime nor exposes the United States to political manipulation of its energy supply. Little wonder, then, that Canada is the biggest exporter of oil to America, with 22% of the total. The runners-up, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, have just 11-12% each. And the country’s potential seems limitless: Canada’s 179 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves rank second in the world.”

Oil sands are too economically important to just abandon them

"Canada's energy industry. Tarred with the same brush." The Economist. Aug 5th 2010

“Energy, including natural gas, conventional oil and coal, makes up a quarter of Alberta’s $211 billion economy. The rest of the country benefits from service and supply contracts with energy companies, and from the government’s redistribution of Alberta’s wealth to poorer provinces.”

Oil sands undermine long-term clean energy security

"Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010

“Major oil company and other tar sands oil interests are attacking climate and clean energy policies in the United States and elsewhere. Concerned about their massive investments, tar sands oil interests are trying to undermine fuel standards, fuel purchasing provisions and other clean energy initiatives that would protect our climate, create green jobs and secure our future. Expansion of tar sands will undermine a U.S. transition to a clean energy economy.”

Tar sands unnecessary if focus is placed on clean energy

"Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010

“American Security Depends on Reducing Dependence on Oil. The best security policy for our nation and climate is to aggressively implement fuel efficiency and other measures that reduce oil dependency. These and other measures stand to reduce U.S. demand for oil by four million barrels per day by 2020 and ten million barrels per day by 2030, which would make expansion of tar sands unnecessary for U.S. fuel needs.”

Nations can choose a clean energy future over tar sands

"Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010:

“As the world’s largest oil consumer, the United States has choices about its energy future. America currently consumes a quarter of the world’s oil supply. We must and can do better, and we have the technology to do it. A nation as innovative and motivated as the United States can find a way to maintain mobility, while at the same time acting to halt expansion of expensive and dirty fuels such as tar sands oil that cause global warming and a host of other environmental and health problems. Electric cars, renewable energy, environmentally sustainable biofuels, fuel efficiency, and smart growth are all positive solutions to meet our future energy needs.”

Tar sands can't enhance energy security; too expensive, not enough

"Tar Sands Invasion." Dirty Oil Sands. May 2010:

“tar sands oil cannot enhance energy security in the United States because it is too expensive and there is not enough of it.

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