Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Oil Sands Not Looking So Good

The world is full of unrealistic expectations for other sources of energy to prop up industrial civilization, which has started its inexorable slide down the slippery slope of peak oil. Among these sources are oil sand (also known as tar sand) and oil shale. However, the huge energy inputs required for their exploitation ensure that they cannot possibly give us the huge energy gain that we got from conventional oil, which gave us globalization, industrial agriculture, the car culture, and the airline industry, not to mention countless other things that make our global consumer society what it is.

Oil has dropped from its all-time high to hover around the $100/bbl mark, and now we have crowds of people proclaiming that peak oil is a fiction, which leads me to ask why oil did not drop back down to $20, but that’s another story. The point here is that, according to these two articles, the profitability of exploiting oil sand and the volume of Canadian oil exports to the US are in jeopardy at $100/bbl, which is still too high for the health of the global economy. Of course when the price of oil shoots back up again, oil sand will perhaps become profitable. Or not. I say this because extracting the useful hydrocarbons requires a lot of energy, much of which apparently comes from natural gas, and in the future that and other energy sources will likewise get more expensive. In that sense we have the same situation here as with corn ethanol: they are all dependent on conventional fossil fuels. Trying to get a better energy and economic return out of oil sand, oil shale, ethanol, and other fuels dependent on conventional fossil fuels is ultimately like a dog chasing its own tail. A similar situation holds for renewables because all their hardware has to be manufactured, deployed, and maintained using fossil fuels. Yet you can’t tell this to energy gurus, who believe that we can free ourselves from oil and keep industrial civilization humming along.

So the vast oil sands of Canada are not going to save the day, any more than American oil shale or Brazilian ethanol.

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