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The Opposite of Mining: Tar Sands Steam Extraction Lessens Footprint, but Environmental Costs Remain: Scientific American
CONKLIN, Alberta--The challenge of pulling oil from sand near here has typically required scraping away the boreal forest and underlying peat to expose the tar sand deposits below. The thickened sand is scooped out, then boiled to separate out the bitumen, with the leftover contaminated water and muck dumped in vast holding ponds the size of small lakes. From orbit the enormous strip mines and tailings lakes created by this process stand out, like a spreading sore--a scar on the planet evidencing the American thirst for oil. But the future of this Canadian province's oil sands leaves less of a visible mark, as can be seen near this town that is not so much a community as an intersection of roads that lead to camps for oil sands workers. That means fewer strip mines, tailings lakes and even giant trucks, but it also means more of the invisible greenhouse gas carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and warming the planet.

This future is melting bitumen where it lies at least 200 meters below the surface rather than mining tar sands. In 2011 more than 11,000 barrels of bitumen were melted out of the frozen ground not far from here each day, where the airstrip sees more human traffic than the town as workers commute in and out by plane from as far away as Newfoundland.

"Most of what's going on happens 375 meters below the surface," says Greg Fagnan, director of operations and production at Cenovus's Christina Lake oil sands production facility, during a recent tour. Cenovus extracts bitumen by employing a technique called steam-assisted gravity drainage, which can be thought of as the opposite of mining. Instead of melting the bitumen out of sand in an industrial plant after clawing the tar sands out of the ground, Cenovus melts it out in place with steam. That means Christina Lake is, in a sense, a giant water-processing facility "that happens to produce oil," Fagnan says. "It's not a complicated business, it's just complex."

Conklin is one of the frontier towns of a new tar sands boom, given that 80 percent of the at least 170 billion barrels in the Canadian province's tar sands are only accessible this way rather than by mining. In 2011, for the first time, oil production from such in situ operations surpassed that of mining for oil in the tar sands--a trend that is only likely to increase as more oil sands production comes online in Canada. Already, plumes of steam billow from the boreal forest across northeastern Alberta where a host of developers work--from Nexen, recently acquired by the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), to oil majors such as Royal Dutch Shell--like mushrooms springing up from the ground after rain.


The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Wed Jan 2nd, 2013 at 03:22:51 PM EST
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