Alberta oil extraction uses a lot of energy

Until that changes, it’ll be a challenge to reduce Alberta’s energy consumption, and by extension, its emissions.

Bitumen mining makes up 63% of crude oil production in Canada. Naturally, it makes up the largest portion of production in Alberta, too.

And as long as this is the case, it’ll be a challenge for Alberta to significantly reduce its impact on the environment, particularly greenhouse gas emissions. Bitumen extraction and refining is an energy intensive process.

Consider conventional oil extraction. It’s most energy intensive during the drilling process and the refining process. But once the well is drilled and tapped, very little energy is expended to extract the oil.

Compare that to bitumen extraction.

Mining bitumen is done in one of two ways: surface mining and in situ extraction.

Surface mining is reserved for bitumen sands with deposits within 70 metres of the earth’s surface. Heavy machinery scoops the bitumen sands from the deposits and into large haulers, which look like gigantic dump trucks. Both the shovels and the haulers require energy. Unlike conventional wells (which is energy intensive during the construction phase), surface mining requires ongoing energy needs.

The haulers transport the material to a crushing facility, where the dense material is broken up to make transportation and processing easier. It’s then transported along conveyor belts to storage facilities, and then later to preparation plants. The crushing facility uses energy to operate the machines, the conveyor system uses energy to transport the material, and some storage facilities require energy when receiving material.

The preparation plant also requires energy, as it adds heated water (often using natural gas) to the material to create a slurry that can be pumped to the extraction stage. It also uses energy to run the preparation equipment, and energy is used to transport the slurry to the extraction stage, as well as in the extraction stage, where any remaining water and solids are removed.

In situ extraction is a type of drilling, so there’s the initial energy requirement of the actual well construction. However, once operational, it uses steam to heat up bitumen, which helps it flow more easily, allowing it to be extracted to the surface. That steam is typically generated using natural gas. In situ also uses pumps to help get the bitumen to the surface, which requires energy.

Both bitumen from surface mining and in situ extraction eventually end up in an upgrader, which uses temperature, pressure, and chemicals—all of which require energy—to prep it for transport to refineries. (To be fair, some pipelines can transport pre-upgrade bitumen).

Bitumen mining in Alberta is a very energy intensive process, when compared to conventional oil wells. And until that changes, it’s going to be tough to reduce energy consumption in this province.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news stories, focusing on politics and labour.

2 replies on “Alberta oil extraction uses a lot of energy”

The problem of actual ‘net energy production’ from the tar sands has always been easy to ignore when oil is worth a lot of money – the sheer activity of the tar sand’s process to make oil makes it look like there’s a big benefit through GDP impact, but in fact, it’s not very efficient at creating energy (one of the worst ways, possibly). The Alberta government is so addicted to the fiction of the tar sands that they don’t want to even call them “tar sands”, which is exactly what they are: sands with tar/bitumen in it until you’ve processed it with enough water and natural gas that oil comes out. They’re not “oil sands” because the processing has separated oil from the ‘waste sand’. Ah well…it’s an Alberta fiction…the NDP, PCs/UCP AND the crazy right all seem to use the same word fiction for that so-called ‘resource’.

Kim, I really appreciate your logistical and statistical analysis on big stories. One thing I hope you eventually turn an eye towards is e-vehicles. Speaking as a person who loves the concept of electric vehicles and clean air – I am curious as to how much “fiction” is at work with e-vehicles. For example, if “everyone” is driving e-vehicles one day, but the road/parking/servicing/maintenance/collision repair infrastructure is all still the same, then we likely haven’t gained very much, have we?! (Other than a warm fuzzy feeling when we don’t have to change our oil twice a year).

With e-vehicles, there’s the obvious issue that we’re still reliant on infrastructure that is extremely hard on the environment, AND particularly brutal for the extraction of resources to create the vehicles in the first place (same as now). IF most people generated their own electricity from wind/solar to plug in their cars, that will only INCREASE the brutal extraction of resources.

I would argue/postulate, that it’s quite possible, given the Laws of Thermodynamics…that internal combustion vehicles may actually be more, or at least “as efficient” as e-vehicles…when one measures the entire environmental impact…all factors honestly appraised. I DON’T KNOW THAT THIS IS THE CASE…but I suspect there are some able minds already crunching numbers on this.

Thanks for your continued great research Kim…I appreciate your novel approach and take on major issues.

Jon Oxley

Thanks for the comment and the feedback, Jon. E-vehicles most definitely not problem free. They may reduce direct consumer emissions, but they aren’t emission free, and their production and use contribute to other environmental issues. The only real solution for improving the environment is consuming less.

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