Submission to the Cabinet Office

Mark Jones mark.jones at
Sun Sep 16 03:03:38 MDT 2001

At 16/09/2001 05:56, Henry Liu wrote:

>Those are the facts.

Henry, it's a little disillusioning to see such a complete misunderstanding
of the Alberta tar sands issue coming from someone whose voice one had
learnt to respect. This is the kind of thing Doug Henwood used to come up
with, but even he has learnt the error of his ways. A little while ago when
this came up on pen-l someone who actually works for the Alberta government
geological service got roped in and my discussion with him went on both on
and off-list for several weeks. It was a useful exchange and I think we
mostly agreed by the end of it: Alberta tar-sands is irrelevant to the
world energy crisis. It's one of the things people talk about to reassure
themselves when fuel prices rise and Opec makes the news. Other
alternatives which people fantasise will save capitalism are cold fusion,
or fuel cells and the so-called "hydrogen economy". (When people start on
about this, they almost always preface their remarks by saying something
like: "Hydrogen, the most plentiful substance in the universe!!!" They
never add that its most common form on earth is water, a not-notably
combustible substance). Windpower and photovoltaics are two other non-runners.

There is indeed a discussion to be had about the economics of
*unconventional* oil, such as Orinoco heavy oil, deepwater oil, tar sands
etc., along the lines of what marginal difference it might make to
capitalist economy. Very little, as it turns out. People who investigate
further than Suncor's PR webpage soon find out that Athabasca tar sand
sands represent an *economically* (not to speak of environmentally)
*unrecoverable* "resource".

The real debate is whether or not Canada faces a catastrophic energy crisis
of *its own*. It does; but Nafta rules mean that the last gramme of
Canadian natural gas will be siphoned south, come what may, and the future
of many Canadian towns and cities is just as bleak as that of the many
Russian cities in the Siberian north which are now being abandoned by their
populations. Canadians will leave or freeze, and tar sands won't save them.
(Incidentally, Suncor PR men used to also blabber on about the gigantic
size of Canadian shale oil deposits.15,000 Gigabarrels! Wow, man! Whoa!
Capitalism is saved!!! But if you look at Suncor's last annual report you
will see that in in March 2001, Suncor of Canada quietly pulled out of the
Stuart shale oil project, abandoning its already considerable investment.
So much for shale oil. And that is *after* recent oil-price hikes).

What lies behind your angst about oil, Henry, presumably is that you are in
denial about the key fact of the epoch: the oil is running out just at the
moment when China has fully embraced the petroleum model of industrial
development. It was a big mistake, and the Chinese people will pay dearly
for it. (Chinese oil production has already peaked, and altho there is talk
of big new discoveries in Tibet, I'm not sure how credible this talk is).

Most of the explanation for what is going on in the world right now, is
explained by the determination of the Atlantic states to deny the Persian
Gulf (capitalism's last, most precious petroleum reserve) to the Chinese
market. Athabasca is irrelevant. Bush Sr knew that when as a director of
Unocal and director of the CIA, he first flirted with the idea of building
pipelines thru Afghanistan to bring out Central Asian oil.

Mark Jones (and here's a little primer for you on oilsands):


Canada's conventional oil production peaked in 1973. By 1999, Canada's oil
total production was about 2.6Mb/day of which 0.5Mb (20%) was from oil
sands. The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board estimates that production from
Canada's oil sands will be extremely slow (100 to 200 years for all of it).
It is also worth noting that the processing of heavy oil and bitumen in
Canada has used cheap, stranded gas. This gas is probably not going to be
stranded or cheap much longer, which will reduce the economics of the heavy
oil and bitumen extraction. According to Fleay:

"As far as Canadian tar sands are concerned, I believe the principal energy
source (quite considerable) is stranded natural gas from the vicinity of the
mines. Once a gas pipeline to the USA goes nearby that gas will be sold to
the USA and probably will only be available to the tar sand operators at a
price. That will probably push up the costs and the alternative fuels used,
if available, will most likely reduce or even eliminate any net energy


This is something Jay Hanson knocked together on oil sands a couple of
years ago:

It has been estimated that Alberta oil sands contain about 300 billion
barrels of recoverable oil. Syncrude is producing over 200,000 barrels
of oil a day right now:

Oily waste water is a byproduct of the process used to recover oil from
the tarry sands. For every barrel of oil recovered, two and a half barrels
of liquid waste are pumped into the huge ponds. The massive Syncrude pond,
which measures 22 kilometers (14 miles) in circumference (25 sq. km.), has
six meters (20 feet) of murky water on top of a 40-meter-thick (133 feet)
pudding of sand, silt, clay and unrecovered oil.
[ ]

To replace conventional crude -- 70 million barrels a day -- would require
about 350 such plants. If each of the 350 plants were the size of the
present plant, they would require a waste pond of 8,750 sq. km. Or about
the half the size of Lake Ontario.

But oil sands are less than half as "energy efficient" as conventional oil,
so perhaps one would need 700 plants and a pond 17,500 sq. km -- almost
as big as Lake Ontario -- to replace conventional oil.

The above numbers assume that all economic "growth" stops at present levels.
Moreover, that does not allow for the increasing energy cost feedback as
existing nuclear plants are decommissioned and another 80% of our existing
energy sources -- oil, gas, and coal -- become sinks.

If global energy use continued to double every 30 years or so, five more
doublings would put Alberta entirely under oily waste water. But even at
100% efficiency, 300 billion barrels of oil sands would only last 12 years
at 70 million barrels a day.

At, say, an average of 25% efficiency over all 300 billion barrels, Alberta
could supply about 3 years of oil for today's economy. However, because
of the decreasing energy efficiency of existing energy sources, and
because the mining of oil sands is so environmentally destructive, it
seems unlikely that all 300 billion barrels will ever be recovered:

"Since opening its operation in 1978 one company, Syncrude, has excavated
1.5 billion tons of so-called overburden, the 20 meters deep layer of
muskeg, gravel and shale that sit atop the actual oil sands. More soil has
been excavated by Syncrude than from the construction of the Great Pyramid
of Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the 10 biggest dams
in the world combined. Syncrude has possibly created the largest surface
mine in the world."


"Much of the oilsand is too deep to be reached by strip mining. Other
methods are being tried to recover this deeper oil, but the economics are
marginal. With the strip mining and refining process now in use, it takes
the energy equivalent of two barrels of oil to produce one barrel. To expand
the strip mining operation to the extent which could, for example, produce
the 18 million barrels of oft used each day in the United States would
involve the world's biggest mining operation, on a scale which is simply not
possible in the foreseeable future, if ever. Canada will probably gradually
increase the oil production from these deposits, but until the conventional
oil of the world is largely depleted these Canadian deposits are likely to
represent only a very small fraction of world production. The production
will always be insignificant relative to potential demand. Oilsands are now
and will be important to Canada as a long-term source of energy and income.
But they will not be a source of oil as are the world's oil wells today."
GeoDestinies, by Walter Youngquist; National Book Company, 1997. . See ]


Environmental groups and farmers are speaking out against the environmental
impacts of major oil and gas extraction projects in northern Alberta.

The Alberta oil sands are thought to contain approximately one third of the
world's oil resources; it is estimated that some 300 billion barrels of oil
from the sands are ultimately recoverable, equal to or greater than the
reserves of Saudi Arabia.

A report by conservation biologist Brian Horejsi of Western Wildlife
Environments Consulting shows that over 225,000 wells have been drilled to
date and 1.5 million kilometers (938,000 miles) of seismic road access have
been cut and an estimated 25 billion dollars in investment has been

In Hythe, some 480 kilometres (300 miles) northwest of Edmonton, former
Christian Reform evangelical pastor Wiebo Ludwig says that oil and gas
projects that now encircle his farm have killed more than 50 of his
livestock, caused three miscarriages among women in his family and caused
birth defects in four grandchildren.

"We have to do something. It's not only our problem, but we have to do this
for all of Alberta. We have to stop this awful pollution," says Mamie
Ludwig, his wife. The Ludwigs have battled in vain for government hearings
on the health effects of gas production.

Backing the Ludwigs is the Rocky Mountain Ecosystem Coalition (RMEC) in
Calgary. "It's easy to discount the Ludwigs as lunatics. But the issue
they're dealing with, emissions from oil and gas facilities, is not a
made-up problem. It's very real," says Mike Sawyer, director of RMEC.

A war of words has broken out between the oil companies and the
environmental protestors. The companies allege that the protestors have
sabotaged equipment, claiming that the Ludwig was responsible for an oil
well explosion at a Suncor Energy wellsite on August 24.

The charges were dropped in September. "The prosecutor reviewed all of the
evidence that the police had collected and concluded that there was no
reasonable likelihood of a conviction based upon the evidence," said Peter
Tadman, justice department spokesman.

Oil companies like the Alberta Energy Company have tried to buy out the
Ludwigs, offering them C$520,000 (US338,000) to leave the province, which
they have rejected.

Meanwhile in northeastern Alberta industry experts say that the waste
created by Suncor near Fort McMurray, some 400 kilometres (250 miles)
northeast of Edmonton, poses an environmental threat worse than the Exxon
Valdez disaster.

Brian Staszenski of the Edmonton-based Environmental Resource Centre, an
information agency funded by government and industry, has warned that if a
flood or earthquake were to knock holes in the massive sand dikes
containing the lakes, the spill of toxic waste could pollute the Athabasca
River all the way to the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.

The oily waste water is a byproduct of the process used to recover oil from
the tarry sands. For every barrel of oil recovered, two and a half barrels
of liquid waste are pumped into the huge ponds. The massive Syncrude pond,
which measures 22 kilometers (14 miles)in circumference, has six meters (20
feet) of murky water on top of a 40-meter-thick (133 feet) pudding of sand,
silt, clay and unrecovered oil.

SOURCE: "In rural Alberta, resource firms targeted by sabotage campaign,"
by David Crary, Associated Press, October 28, 1998. "Charges dropped
against pastor, kin in oil-well blast" Grande Prarie Herald-Tribune,
September 10, 1998. "Alberta's black gold rush" by Christopher Genovali,
Canadian Dimension, March 13, 1997. "Critics say oil-sands waste poses
major environmental problems" By Larry Johnsrude, The Ottawa Citizen,
January 19, 1992.

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