Oil in the water: part 3 of 3

Oil in the water: part 3 of 3

By Amy Huva

April 12, 2012

This is part three of a three part series on the use of water in the Alberta oil sands – Part 1, Part 2

Expansion, tailings, what’s next? Over the past two weeks, I’ve looked at water usage in the Alberta oil sands. I’ve tried to discover what the water is used for, and how it could be better reused. This week I’m going to try and find some solutions.

Just export it?

Last week I went to a lecture that discussed some of the research work that is being done to try and reduce the amount of water being used in the oil sands. The lecture was heavy on the surface chemistry and light on the environmental contexts. This resulted in some wonderful moments, like the speaker’s suggestion that if the US would buy Canadian oil sands tailings along with oil sands bitumen, then the tailings problem would be solved!

To more realistically deal with the problem of mature fine tailings, the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation funded by Imperial Oil is looking at using different solvents, instead of using warm water, to help liquefy the bitumen. Some of their other research includes using very high powered lasers to release photons with twice the energy that can interact with the surface of the bitumen, encouraging it to liquefy.

Current in situ mining process, not safe with toluene

Currently, a research group at UBC is trying a process that uses the solvent toluene. As a solvent, toluene acts most similar to water; its chemical structure means the hydrogen atoms in toluene can act similarly to the hydrogen atoms in water. However, in their research so far, there are some serious issues, beyond the cost of solvent loss from evaporation.

Toluene, while being a very common and relatively cheap solvent, is also significantly toxic. When I used it in labs, I was required to pour it into a special disposal container, because it can’t go down the sink. As you can see from the safety data sheet, the hazards are (emphasis not mine):


I don’t know about you, but I don’t want toluene anywhere near the ground where it can leech into the water table. The use of this solvent as a replacement for water would require many operating changes to how the bitumen is extracted; because there is no way the current process of pumping high pressure hot water directly into the ground to liquefy the bitumen could be safely used with toluene.

Turning this...

The overarching problem is the rate of expansion of the oil sands. Initially, oil sands production was expected to reach just under 1million barrels per day by 2015. This was exceeded in 2004, and by 2010 had reached 1.6million barrels per day. This means the oil sands are expanding more than a decade faster than the projections. While new technologies to reduce or replace water usage in the oil sands still need further research, rampant expansion will simply continue.

While oil is priced at or above $60/barrel, the oil sands will continue to expand as quickly as the companies can get approval. Bitumen, of an unknown chemical composition (it’s a thick mix of organic compounds, exactly which compounds are in each barrel isn’t known) will continue being shipped out as fast as possible, further artificially inflating the oil sands economy and creating an economic bubble with the resulting Dutch Disease.

into this, in the blink of an eye

With an overheated oil sands economy, and the Canadian Federal Government so focused on economic expansion, all parties need to take a second to think about how the oil sands are expanding, and whether it’s in Canada’s greater interests. There may be quick billions to be made now, but when all the clamouring for greed is done, will the widespread environmental degradation and the economic costs of the clean up be worth it?

This research is important, and solvents other than water or toxic carcinogens need to be found. Despite the expected (and for many unwanted) rapid expansion of the oil sands, if research dollars continue to be directed toward responsible, safe, and efficient clean-up methods, then hopefully we can find a way to balance that expansion sustainably. With the rising cost of oil, taking the time to create solutions could prove not only more profitable, but also more environmentally sustainable.

(Icon photo courtesy of Masrur Ashraf/Flickr, other photos courtesy J. Henry Fair, oil sands extraction graphic courtesy National Energy Board of Canada)

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