Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tar Sands - More Than Just a Sticky Issue

Tar sands are composed of sands (ranging from loose to nearly-rock) mixed with clay and saturated with bitumen. Bitumen, or colloquially, tar, is a very dense, viscuous form of petroleum. People and bitumen go way back – all the way back. Since homo sapiens arrived on the global scene, bitumen was used for building construction, waterproofing boats, and more. Even before that, Neanderthals seemed to have used it as a component in their stone tools. Several ancient civilizations used bitumen as a gluing and waterproofing agent for various applications. This should also give you some sense of what a schlep it is to turn this mucky, sticky stuff into smooth liquid fuel.

But before we discuss how we get the oil out of the sand, how did it get there in the first place?

That’s a long story – billions of years long, in fact – but the short version is that when the Pacific Plate crushed up over the North American Plate, forming the Canadian Rockies, the sedimentary rocks composing a great deal of the Alberta plains were buried below. The increased pressure from the overlying mountains and the increased heat from (relative) proximity to the earth’s mantle transformed some of the organic material (specifically the kerogen) in those rocks into light oil and natural gas. The configuration of the regional geology was such that the oil and gas was seeped out and up toward the northeast, and as it reached shallower depths, it was discovered by microrganisms with strange appetites, who we can imagine had a great time as they ate it up and sent it back out as the sticky, icky bitumen we know today, in a process properly described as microbial biodegradation.

Tar sands can be found in several countries around the globe, but there are especially large reserves in Canada, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Of particular significance to the United States are the Alberta tar sands, which lie in the Canadian Boreal forest and contain about two trillion barrels of oil. The Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta are the largest deposit in Canada. It conveniently reaches right up to the surface north of Fort McMurray, but the rest is buried about a thousand feet below ground. Thus only twenty percent of the recoverable oil in that deposit can be recovered by surface mining, which. The rest requires in-situ mining techniques, most commonly Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) in which two horizontal wells are drilled into the sands, one atop the other, and then the top one continuously is pumped full of steam, which “melts” the sands enough that they ooze into the lower well and can be pumped out.

As one can imagine, quite a lot of natural gas and water is needed to keep pumping the steam in and the tar out. In fact, every barrel of oil produced uses two to five barrels of water. Furthermore, the process of creating oil from tar sands is “carbon-intensive,” resulting in three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as conventionally produced oil. The land has to be cleared before mining can commence, and though naturally “steps are being taken” to mitigate against the negative effects on local plant and animal life, one has to wonder how much can really be done when taking huge swaths of land tearing away everything above ground and all the topsoil below. Furthermore, the Alberta tar sands are located on a delta used by hundreds of species of birds as a breeding ground.  Not only is the landscape annihilated for mining operations, but tailings ponds (pools of waste) sit on the surface throughout the area, threatening disaster in the event of failure and leakage. Even when all is well, tailings ponds are dangerous to the wildlife who mistake the toxic ponds for normal, safe water features.

Of course, as with anything there are costs and benefits. Although dangerous, deriving oil from the tar sands of course has its positives, too. These are almost entirely economic. For example, the oil industry has hugely improved the Albertan economy, providing jobs and future prospects for expanded production. The United States and Canada each benefit from having this near and fairly secure sources of the oil we still very much need, and of each also has the pleasure and convenience of doing business with its neighbor.

Finally, since Alberta is landlocked, getting the oil from the source to the distributor means building pipelines, which comes with its own additional demands on the environment as well. It’s easy to see why the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline has become an issue as sticky as bitumen.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern

Elevation Zero, Florida’s Rising Sea Level

As a state that prides itself on its pristine shorelines and valuable waterways, Florida has more to lose from a rising sea level than any other state in the United States.  According to the United States Geological Survey, the average elevation in the state of Florida is 100 feet with nearly half of the state close to or at sea level.  Currently, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting the sea level is increasing at about 1.25 inches per decade.  As you can probably tell, this poses a huge problem for Florida if there is any sort of increase in sea level.  A rapid sea level rise could even eliminate some barrier islands that have had a critical place in protecting inland habitats.  The rising sea level would force many of Florida’s species to depart into entirely new ecosystems all across the state and into neighboring regions.

There are two major causes of global sea-level rise: thermal expansion caused by the warming of the oceans, and the loss of land-based ice, such as glaciers and polar ice caps, through increased melting.  The effect of the increase in sea level not only poses a threat to our precious beaches and shorelines, but it also potentially has an enormous effect on the state’s economy.  In 2011, Florida had over 87 million visitors, mostly here to enjoy the white sandy beaches Florida has to offer.  If sea level continues to rise at an exponentially alarming rate, it could devastate what makes Florida famous and what makes Floridians flourish.  According to the US Census, in 2008, 75.7 percent of Florida’s population was living in coastal counties.  Not only do Floridians value the coastline for our tourism industry, but it also plays an essential role for our residents.  Even a small rise in sea level will have side effects far beyond disappearing shorelines, including: flooding during rainstorms, storm surges from hurricanes, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers.  Whether the increase in climate is due to human activity or a natural cycle, a global sea-level rise will not only affect Florida’s natural magnificent beaches, but the communities we have grown to treasure.

-Adam Gruszcynski, Legal Intern