One of my formative teenage experiences was coming across a Rand Corp. report from the late 50's early 60's devoted to outlining various U.S./U.S.S.R. nuclear war scenarios. It cost me about $1.00 in a used book store that I frequented at the time. Several chapters were devoted to the possibility of a "limited exchange", wherein the U.S. might fire off a few ICBMs and, while they were in flight, negotiate a peace treaty dictating the number of ICBMs to be fired by the U.S.S.R in response. RAND explored the options and crunched the numbers in terms of cities lost and millions dead.
In short, these guys don't fuck around.
...which means their Unconventional Fossil-Based Fuels: Economic and Environmental Trade-Offs is likely to be as definitive a word on the state of the Alberta Tar Sands as you are likely to find. If you want to get a good idea of what's going on out there, I would read the whole thing.
In the meantime, here's a few highlights:
What's Canada Doing in the Way Of Carbon Sequestration Projects?
Geologic storage refers to technical approaches being developed and demonstrated worldwide that are directed at the long-term storage of CO2 in various types of geological formations, such as deep saline formations. In geologic storage, CO2 is injected at high pressure into appropriate formations. Three ongoing large-scale tests of geologic storage worldwide seek to store CO2 while gaining critical knowledge to be applied elsewhere, and others are planned (IPCC, 2005; NETL, 2007b). One, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, uses CO2 delivered via pipeline from a coal-gasification facility in North Dakota for EOR. Recently, the Weyburn test has increased its injection rate of CO2 from an initial 1 million metric tons per year to more than 2 million metric tons per year. The Sleipner project, operated by Stat oil in the North Sea, injects approximately 1 million metric tons/year of CO2 separated from natural-gas processing into a saline formation. The In Salah project in Algeria injects CO2 to increase natural-gas recovery. A common aspect of the three projects is detailed monitoring of the migration of the injected CO2 over time so that risks associated with geologic storage can be better understood (IPCC, 2005). Each project has a final storage capacity of approximately 20 million metric tons, and all three projects currently are viewed as successes in the scientific and technical literature.
Just to emphasize the content of this last sentence: according to RAND, these pilot projects have successfully managed to sequester carbon. So the technology shows some promise.
What Are The Odds of Powering The Tar Sands Extraction Process Via Nuclear Fission (thus cutting down on CO2 emissions during)?
Using nuclear reactors to provide steam, electricity, or hydrogen for use in oil-sand projects
would reduce CO2 emissions in the extraction and upgrading of bitumen. NPC (2007, p. 48)
estimated that producing a nuclear-power plant fit for the purpose would likely not occur until 2020–2030. However, Alberta Energy has since announced plans to build a 2,200-megawatt (MW) nuclear facility in the Peace River area as early as 2017. As this would be the first nuclear plant to be built in the province, legal, regulatory, and public-opinion issues will need to be addressed prior to its realization.
This is something I have written about before here.
But Would Nukes Even Work
Nuclear power could be used to produce electricity, steam, and hydrogen for oil-sand
projects. However, in addition to concerns about radioactive-waste management and proliferation, there may be limitations on the use of nuclear power in the oil-sand industry. Oil-sand projects are generally dispersed, whereas nuclear plants generally provide a large amount of power at a single site. Piping steam over great distances would not be practical, 21 and electricity transmission would require significant infrastructure investments to reach many small, often remote oil-sand sites. H2 production via electrolysis today is expensive, and, again, there is no existing infrastructure for moving large amounts of H2 to remote oil-sand sites (NPC, 2007). At present, there is insufficient information to provide cost estimates if nuclear power were used in oil-sand projects.
And What About Water Use?
Both mining and in situ extraction methods use a significant amount of water relative
to the extraction of conventional crude oil. For the mining operations, the Athabasca River is
the primary source of water, and oil-sand projects are by far the largest user of the Athabasca, at more than twice that of the city of Calgary (Woynillowicz, Severson-Baker, and Raynolds, 2005; Griffiths, Woynillowicz, and Taylor, 2006). Production of one bbl of SCO by mining requires between 2 and 4.5 bbl of water. As of June 2006, oil-sand projects had licenses to withdraw 2.3 billion bbl of water/year from the Athabasca, most of which ends up in tailing ponds. If all of the existing, approved, and planned projects were realized, this would result in licenses for about 4.3 billion bbl/year (NEB, 2006). The government of Alberta has addressed the issue with legislation limiting the maximum allowed total water withdrawal for all existing, approved, and planned uses, at most an annual withdrawal of 6.2 percent of the total annual volume of the minimum flow year on record (Alberta Environment, 2004). However, without an impact study, it is difficult to understand how this would affect the river basin. The Pembina Institute has expressed concern for the aquatic ecosystem of the river, as well as wetlands and peatlands across the region. In particular, the seasonal variability in the flow of the Athabasca River could be problematic; in winter months, the flow can drop to less than 15 percent of its average peak flow in July (Griffiths, Woynillowicz, and Taylor, 2006). NEB (2006) concluded, “the Athabasca River does not have sufficient flows to support the needs of all planned oil sands mining operations. Adequate river flows are necessary to ensure the ecological sustainability of the Athabasca River.”