The Alberta Oil Life: Ubiquity and the Road to Zero Carbon

Medical implants, food packaging, cellphones, athletic apparel, dress shoes, paper, screws, nails, water bottles, car tires, video games, beach umbrellas, sandpaper, headphones, cancer drugs, recreational drugs, painkillers, colostomy bags, hospital beds, regular beds, fishing lines, boats, cosplay costumes, comic books, coloured inks, paint, shopping carts, musical instruments, concert hall chairs, pens, stress balls, tennis balls, badminton rackets, solar cells, computer processors, valves, batteries, indoor plumbing, water treatment facilities, electrical cabling, research lab equipment, almost the entire scientific field of organic chemistry, Windmills, water pumps, tractors, o-rings, combs, hair dryers, hair colouring products, condoms, arc furnaces, fertilizer, linoleum flooring, your kids vitamins, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, clothes irons, steam cleaners, vacuums (both home and industrial), fiber optic cabling and by extension the entire internet, your gym partners amino acid supplements, and if you haven’t gotten the theme yet, almost the entirety of modern society.

That is a list of just a few things that we make using petroleum. And not merely in the way that the process is powered by it. But rather, in the manner that somewhere in the process a petroleum product is used to create a part of the final product or is necessary for the machinery to operate.

More than a few groups are calling for an end to oil production. They tend to cite the fact that it is dirty, produces large amounts of by-products, takes away from Indigenous lands, or any number of other arguments. And a lot of those arguments are valid and must be addressed. But the answer is not to simply end the extraction of petroleum, unless you want to go back to a time when most light was provided by “clean burning whale oil” that is.

Not enough people have a life long grudge against a whale to be able to justify it though.

I’m all in favour of stopping the extraction of fossil fuels for use as Fuel sources in a controlled manner. There are many options that are gearing up to be able to replace fossil fuels as energy sources for transportation and electricity. Batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, and synfuels are all near term technologies that have preferred niches that they would work well in without interfering with the growth of the others.

But even transitioning to zero or net zero carbon fuels does not mean we can stop mining or extracting petroleum. It is simply too useful and too pervasive of every aspect of society. Am I saying we have to leave it as it is? Not at all, but I am saying that we can’t just stop it, so we Have to improve it. We have to stop burning petcoke as heat for chemical processes. We have to stop burning LNG to make steam for cracking and reforming processes. We have to stop burning extracted fossil fuels altogether. But this doesn’t mean that the Alberta oil production has to stop. It simply has to change.

And how we change it is, you guessed it, nuclear energy. First we use current gen nuclear to replace coal and natural gas electricity production. Then we get the first run of SMRs to make steam for SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) on site since large nuclear plants cannot be placed close enough and the SAGD wells are not active for long enough to justify them. This also has the benefit of reducing the amount of solvents added to improve efficiency of extraction as those solvents are used because the temperatures of the current steam production are not quite high enough to get the more viscous oils that are becoming more prevalent. A natural progression as the good quality sites dry up and lower quality formations are utilized. Finally high temperature reactors on process sites to replace petcoke and natural gas heat sources in chemical processes along with producing the fuel alternatives to power the mining and transport vehicles required. A simple three stage process that stepwise reduces the CO2 output of the oilsands and associated oil production to zero.

Not identical to what the breakdown from the oil sands or other Alberta based production, but close enough for government work. Image from Wikipedia commons

It sounds simple, because it is. Not only do we reduce the carbon footprint but we also reduce the total land footprint as we reduce the mining required since a vast majority of oil production is currently for fuels production. But if we keep the alternate fuel production localized in the same area then Alberta gets to keep use of the infrastructure investment that is already there and likely the same or approximately the same amount of jobs in that sector as we know that there is at least that demand for liquid fuels, we’ve just replaced them with zero or net-zero alternatives.

As for the extractable materials still in the formations, well there are two forces that determine what happens, the push to reduce extraction and the incentive to keep producing and create higher value products than the originally planned fuels from it. So it will probably result in a general decrease of total mining and extraction, but not down to current levels of production of the non fuel portions of petroleum product production (try saying that three times fast). And as the laws of supply and demand predict, when there is a larger supply available, the price will drop until the demand matches it at a new equilibrium. So technically, ideally, by pushing forward with this change, we can use nuclear to: save jobs in the oil sands, extend the life of oil sands production, reduce extraction land use, speed up land remediation, reduce carbon emissions from the oil sands to zero, give a new revenue stream to the oil sands in the form of alternative fuels, maintain returns on investment of infrastructure in the oil sands, and reduce the cost of Every item on the list at the beginning of this article due to a shifting of production from fuels to higher value materials.

Sounds Utopic, but it is all possible with the right kind of energy, applied intelligently and utilized correctly. All we need to do is start.

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2 thoughts on “The Alberta Oil Life: Ubiquity and the Road to Zero Carbon

Add yours

  1. We’ve been waiting decades for a small 200MW fail safe nuclear reactor that could de-carbonize and reduce costs in the oilsands and power northern communities. Nothing, squat, F-all, bubkiss, nada, so the world has moved on with newer cleaner non-fuelled solutions. We can’t wait and do nothing while the promises fail to materialize.

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    1. You’re definitely not wrong with the statement that we have been waiting a long time. The world has tried to move on but is coming up against the realization that non fuelled solutions cannot supply the high quality heat needed at the necessary levels of reliability for low enough cost. As such we are coming back to nuclear in a big way with of 60 companies ranging from small to multinational throwing their hats in the ring with designs ranging from Micro to Grid scale.

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