Thursday, February 19, 2009

RAND On The Tar Sands

Since the 1st stages of Obama and Harper's climate-change treaty will involve a "clean-technology deal" that would boost the development of Carbon Sequestration (CS) techniques, I thought that finding out what the Rand Corporation thought about the concept of CS might be a useful exercise.

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.”

So there you have it.


Anonymous said...

RAND is a bit crazy, I'd recommend the book Soldiers of Reason as an interesting look at them. One of the things that came up in that book was that Dr. Strangelove was based on a RAND analyst.

Saskboy said...

The sequestration isn't bad, except it was mostly started as a way to get MORE oil out of the ground.

bigcitylib said...


That wouldn't surprise me at all.

Niles said...

Sequestration as oil pumping power is a win/win scenario for the companies. The original oil fields in Alberta still have oil in them, but the pressure is too low to get it out. So it would be like adding gas to a soda bottle with syrup in it. Beats adding *water*. Similar situation around the world. That oil is less 'dirty' and it brings on more production without new exploration.

Then there's the theory that a market for carbon itself will be developed to use the sequestered gases.

The Mound of Sound said...

RAND, being a corporation created by the Pentagon to undertake Research ANd Development, was also the definitive word on many goofy schemes during Vietnam. McNamara had all the RAND research he could carry that convinced him Vietnam was winnable.

Then again there's the Enviro-Can study from last year that found sequestration creates as much carbon as it sequesters plus all the other pollutants associated with its processes. It takes a lot of energy to capture carbon, compress it and transport the stuff to a place where it can be safely buried and monitored.

Mark Richard Francis said...

Carbon sequestration is limited in implementation, and is very expensive, boosting the cost of extracting oil from the tar sands to over $100/barrel. It is not expected to come down in price. Also, it is not expected to be able to adequately dent CO2 emissions in time.

Furthermore, CO2 is not geologically inert. It reacts with minerals, and can alter the integrity of where it is stored. This limits where it can be used.

Also, it is still not clear how long it remains captured even in a secure site.

Nuclear as hope to generate the power needed to extract the oil, but moving to a large generator is the wrong way to go. They should look into using smaller nuclear reactors, such as those being designed to fit on a flatbed truck... but don't expect any vision from the bozos running Alberta.

Next, melt water from the Rockies into Alberta's plains is currently declining. Some blame global warming. Alberta may be getting as lot drier.

Lost is all this is that the US would rather we stop using so much natural gas -- we burn the stuff like crazy in AB to make oil -- as NG is a cleaner fuel in terms of CO2 emission.