8.1 Years of Gas… Tar Sands switch to… Coal?

According to Dave Hughes, who in 2002 was Leader of the “National Coal Inventory” project for Natural Resources Canada (NRC), recently gave a presentation.

The thrust of his presentation.. given to a sellout audience in Calgary, Aberta…

Canadian Natural gas has eight years left

The title of his presentation would have been even more enticing to the thousands of people employed in the Albertan Oil patch… emphasis added.

“The Coming Energy Sustainability Crisis: Alternatives to Oil, Implications of Demand Growth and the Way Forward”

I won’t regurgitate the article from the Republic.. the headline says it all… the fact that an employee of NRC is going on tour to speak about this topic speaks volumes. The “threat” of a resource crunch is real, it’s happening, and it’s going to hit Canada in many different ways.

No doubt one of the major reasons Mr. Hughes was in Canada was because of the incredible interest in Canadian Oil Sands.

So why would the Oil sands (a.k.a. bitumen, tar sand) community want to hear this warning? Well… to understand that, you must understand how Oil is extracted from Oil Sands.

Wikipedia has a nice overview.

There are two main processes… Cyclic Steam Stimulation and Steam Assisted Gravity

You can already pick out the one “driving” force behind these processes… Steam.

How do you create steam? Well.. lots and lots of water… and lots and lots of heat… produced mainly by, you guessed it, Natural Gas

How much Natural Gas? According to this extensive report NRC estimates the least energy intensive (non-steam using) process to use 500,000 cubic/ft of Gas per barrel of oil produced. Steam injection technologies now being used consume double that… 1 million cubicft of gas per barrel.

Current oil produced from Canadian oil sands is around 1 million barrels per day

1 million barrels… that means 1 million * 1 million cubic feet of gas. Um… I can’t count that high… but is that a Quadrillion cubic feet of Natural Gas PER DAY?

To put that in just a little perspective… 1,000,000cu/ft of gas would produce 1 billion BTU of energy.. your regular gas BBQ is rated at around 25,000BTU… that’s a lot of burnt steak!

So what the heck does all that mean? Well. It means that in 8 years, (give or take a few months), the “Great Saviour” that is the Canadian Oil Sands will likely have to find another source to create heat for their extraction.

Many questions spring from this.

#1: What can produce that much heat? Coal? Anything else?
#2: Will there be enough coal being mined (and transported) to feed the industry?
#3: Oil Sands production is already one of the most environmentally destructive processes on this Earth. Imagine combining strip mining and a steelworks plant.. and add in a “trailings” lake the size of 20 city blocks. Now add a nice big coal fired electricity plant to the mix. Sounds great doesn’t it?
#4: When that Natural Gas runs out (or production drops enough) what happens to the price for “the rest of us”. How’s your gas furnace and dryer?
#5: What does this do to the rest of the economy that relies on Natural Gas to power their manufacturing and electrical generation plants.
#6: Sure, there’s LNG from overseas? How are we planning on getting it here?

There are many more questions than there are answers. And unfortunately… the answers that I’m seeing don’t add up to what we have grown used to today.

To take out one final thought from David Hughes talk:

“At the end of the presentation, Hughes stated that there is no question that the world will eventually become energy sustainable. The only question is how that transition will occur. A number of general guidelines and solutions were offered, mainly involving better design and planning of infrastructure for both transit and buildings. The importance of conservation and efficiency was also stressed, along with the savings that will result from “demand destruction.””

Demand Destruction…