Tar Sands Will Never Replace Mideast Oil

By | Jan 21, 2009

There is a great myth that as the cost of pumping oil out of the middle east increases with declining supply it will be viable to draw fossil fuels from the tar sands of western Canada. While it may be true that the sands will be tapped to a greater degree, the idea that it will be “business as usual” is a collective delusion that glosses over basic fact.

We are at the brink of the greatest (worst!) energy crisis the world has ever seen. Forget about the idea of “running out” of oil – for all intents and purposes we will never run out of oil – pumping the earth dry is not analogous to emptying our car’s gas tank. As the number of barrels of oil getting pumped starts to decline (this may have already started to happen), there won’t be enough to go around for everyone. Imagine a gas shortage that never ends – there is gasoline available, just not enough to fill your car if you’re the last one to the station. How will you get your groceries, go to work?

As oil fields get older, it takes more work to pump out usable fuel. The solution is to inject water or natural gas in order to increase the pressure of the well and draw up oil; but natural gas is on the decline, if we use that, how will we heat our homes? Water is a delicate resource – since it is fundamental to our very survival, we must be careful to avoid polluting it. The increased effort raises the costs not only of drilling for oil, but also for refining it. Let’s go pump the tar sands – but what does that mean, really? Instead of pumping up oil from reservoirs we are dealing with porous rock. Hardly cheap to purify and refine.

As the price of oil increases we will certainly look to other alternatives to save money and generate energy. Our problem is that by continually going for the cheapest possible solution, we are driving ourselves into higher price points and exhausting all of our basic resources. The tar sands may start to look cost effective now, but ten years ago we wouldn’t have even considered that avenue as a plausible means.

Wind, solar, tide and geothermal energies are held up as the energy consumer’s holy grail – clean renewable resources that might one day free us from the pain of fossil fuels. These technologies still show promise but they have not been developed so much that they can deliver on our energy demands. By 2020 they will still make up only a fraction of our fuel sources. The economic and energy cost of building these projects is too great given their return.

Switching to these when fossil fuels becomes too expensive isn’t as simple as it sounds. It takes years of development and investment to replace infrastructure as large as the oil-based economy we have constructed. Trying to switch only when oil becomes too expensive is lunacy – where will we get the energy needed to build these things?

The sky is not falling – as Obama warned us at his inauguration: we have had a “collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”. We have failed to make the hard choices needed to thrive moving forward; we have basked in the luxuries provided to us by the availability of cheap energy all the while putting off the inevitable debt that living this way brings.

It is a lot like having a high-limit credit card that we have used irresponsibly. We have grown used to living beyond our means believing that there will always be gas at the pump, heat in our homes, food on the table and high paying jobs. We didn’t invest that energy in our future, and so in the coming years we are going to have to learn new ways of powering our cities and our economies. We are going to have to learn to live more simply; large homes, multiple vehicles, computers that obsolete every year – these will become things of excess.

We’re not out, not by a long shot. Our way of life is not going to disappear overnight. But our expectations need to come down to earth, and protect it.

3 Comments so far
  1. Aaron Wakling January 21, 2009 10:15 am

    I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  2. dwilson January 21, 2009 11:00 pm

    Thank-you. We hope we can provide plenty of thought provoking material. Feel free to comment at any time, we enjoy hearing different opinions and learning from them.

  3. The East Wants In | Ignorant Mouth November 11, 2009 9:24 pm

    […] end of the recession, but the actual recovery seems to differ from region to region. Kind of like peak oil, it will be many years before we will be totally sure when we really got […]

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