Peak oil, oil shale and tar sands.
December 3, 2005 3:27 AM   Subscribe

Peak oil, oil shale and tar sands. Is peak oil a concern?

I have heard that the extractable oil in oil shale and tar sands is massive. I believe there is an oil shale deposit in Colorado that has a middle east size oil deposit, and there are vast tar sands in Canada.
In the past I was lead to believe that the cost of extracting this oil was such that it could not compete with $25 a barrel oil, but at $50 a barrel it would be a different story.
Is this true? Are there massive, accessible oil fields out there waiting to take the place of crude?
posted by bystander to Science & Nature (17 answers total)
posted by cillit bang at 3:32 AM on December 3, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks cillit bang, I have read that thread previously. I find most peak oil discussion presumes there is no substitute alternative to crude oil and I am interested in understanding if oil shale or tar sands are an alternative.
posted by bystander at 3:43 AM on December 3, 2005

The figures on this (possibly quite dodgy) site suggest that oil shale and tar sands are not of much help. (More specifically, see page two)

(I assume you've already seen that site, but might not have bothered to read all the way to page two :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:58 AM on December 3, 2005

Best answer: This article addresses very formally what you're referring to... So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if it was the catalyst for your question.

And I think they answer it well—we're smart enough and adaptive enough that it really isn't too terrible a concern.

If you haven't read the article in its entirety, you'll definite appreciate it.
posted by disillusioned at 4:43 AM on December 3, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks -harlequin- , I had read that site, but figure it might be a little biased. They seem to focus on the problems of extracting the oil economically, which is less of an issue with current crude prices.
Unfortunately, it seems that the energy input to free up oil shale or tar sand oil is a substantial fraction of the energy in the oil itself.
So I guess we won't have any issues with oil supply for plastics, fertilisers etc. but we still need a bulk energy source (that is preferably non-polluting).
Maybe nuclear as the enrgy source to crack the oil in the tar sands? Not ideal obviously, but a potential alternative using today's technology that could deliver oil at current prices.
posted by bystander at 4:46 AM on December 3, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks disillusioned, I hadn't seen the wired piece at all.
posted by bystander at 5:03 AM on December 3, 2005

Peak oil generally refers to the peak of "cheap oil", i.e., oil that can easily be pumped out of the ground. Tar sands and oil shale can produce usable oil, but at a greatly increased cost in both real dollars and environmental impact. Even coal can be used to produce gasoline.

The Earth will have been rendered unlivable through global warming before we exhaust all these resources.

Furthermore, as oil prices rise, so do energy prices in general and so does the cost of processing these energy intensive fossil fuels.
posted by justkevin at 7:00 AM on December 3, 2005

That Wired article looks like a editorial to me. It seems to say "yes" to your question without any numbers or facts whatsoever.
posted by cillit bang at 7:08 AM on December 3, 2005

Don't tar sands necessarily entail some sort of massive open pit mining? If so I hope we can find a better alternative. I hate the thought of all of that beautiful north country being turned into something out of Dante's inferno.

Alrosa Pit Mine: World's Biggest Man Made Hole.
(over a mile across)

How many hummers you think fit in there? ;-)
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 9:46 AM on December 3, 2005

Actually prettyboyfloyd, you may not have to dig a big hole to extract the oil from tar sands. I heard a report on the radio yesterday and they were taling about how the oil companies in western Canada are experimenting with ways to inject super hot water in to the ground that causes the oil to bubble to the surface. This method still requires the large amounts of enery to extract the oil, but may be a little more ecologically friendly than digging a huge hole in the ground.

BTW, that picutre is awesome! Thanks for sharing. I wonder why the holde doesn't fill with water though?
posted by gus at 10:23 AM on December 3, 2005

I agree, we should stop mining for diamonds. (That's what that mine is, a diamond mine.)

As for how many Hummers you can fit in there, well, if it's the same photo I looked at last week, there's a truck vislible in the mine in that photo....
posted by kindall at 10:25 AM on December 3, 2005

More photos and that pit and one of the trucks (capable of opening up many cans of whup ass on any hummer) here: keyhole group discussion

Yeah, I know I cheated and put in a picture of a diamond mine. A pit's a pit as far as I know though. Living in Northern California I've had a chance to go to the malakoff diggings up in the sierra. These are hideous, weird, monumental scars from blasting at the mountains with high pressure water to get at the last scraps of gold ~125 years ago.

All I'm saying is that I hope once the 'oil rush' is over we don't resort to similarly short sighted plundering in order to keep our family sized trucks rolling. I guess bubbling the water is an idea, but I'd rather my R&D tax dollars were spent on something less damaging to the planet.
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 10:47 AM on December 3, 2005

The technology gus is referring to is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), and the liquid bitumen doesn't "bubble to the surface", rather it's drained from the horizontal channels. They're doing it because most of the reserve is too deep for open pit mining, not really for any ecological reasons.

Every oil company in Alberta is working to reduce the energy costs associated with SAGD (they're talking about using nuclear generated steam, or burning some of the bitumen underground) but you still have to separate the product for the sand, and upgrade it to automobile grades. Both processes are inherently very energy intensive.

There are even more vast, even more expensive hydrocarbon resources around. As the price of oil rises, extracting them will become more feasible. But we only have so much money to spend, so as the price rises, we'll make choices to use less of it. That's what "peak oil" is all about as far as I can tell: there'll always be oil, it just won't be cheap.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:43 AM on December 3, 2005

Popular Ethics wins the prize for most informative response so far. (Does that mean that I won the prize for most misleading response?)

Wikipedia in any case discusses oil shale being removed with pit mines, but agrees with P.E. on pit mining not being a feasible option for removal of Canadian tar sands (though the entry for tar sands strangely[?] pictures a pit mine at the top of the entry).
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 12:03 PM on December 3, 2005

There was an interesting bit about this on Morning Edition yesterday, too.
posted by Hackworth at 3:14 PM on December 3, 2005

The Oil Drum has some pretty useful information on the whole peak oil discussion, without so much of the scare mongering found at lifeaftertheoilcrash.

re: oil shale and tar sands, my very limited understanding of the issue is that, yes, these materials can be used to produce combustible hydrocarbons. But it takes so much energy to extract and process the stuff (not to mention the technology and infrastructure to do so), that the whole process at this point is a net energy loser, in that it takes more energy to process it into anything usable than we would get from the end product. (Peakers refer to this as "energy return on energy investment" or eROeI, er something like that.)

Die Off is also another place to look for PO info and other doomsday funblast stuff.
posted by slogger at 8:09 PM on December 3, 2005

Some problems with that Wired article. eg, it implies that making alternative fuels "viable" is the same as (or that there will be no significant time lag to) having them so readily functional on a large-scale commercial basis that we can simply switch over, without major disruptions to our current habits. It's as if he thinks existing infrastructure can be easily, quickly, cheaply adapted to alternative fuels like natural gas or hydrogen (from what I've been reading, it can't).

on topic: I asked a friend who works in the Calgary oil patch about peak oil and Alberta's oil sands. He thinks that at current and projected global rates of oil consumption, what's there will help but not that much, and that there's not enough natural gas to get it all out of the ground and upgrade it anyway, and the environment will be trashed in the process.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:29 PM on December 6, 2005

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