Wednesday, October 13, 2010

O Canada: ElBaradei and the Oil Sands

oilsands-cp-5173278 Mohammed ElBaradei, the previous head of the IAEA, is in Canada to talk about energy security. When I read something like this from him:

There is a broader sense that without stability you will not really have energy security," he said in an exclusive interview with the [Calgary] Herald. "You will not have energy security unless you have a global security system that enables everybody to feel that they have enough to have a decent life. If you continue to have sort of an obscene gap between the rich and the poor and the instability, that will definitely have an impact on your energy security. Energy security is just the tip of the iceberg."

I remember why I find him an admirable figure – he did a terrific job at the IAEA promoting the needs of smaller countries and tempering some inflammatory rhetoric from a few of the more powerful member countries. The growing interest in nuclear energy throughout Asia and Africa likely owes at least a nod in the direction of ElBaradei.

The “exclusive interview” is so light on quotes, reporter Shaun Polczer must have caught him on the run. I’ll be interested to see if his speech there is covered.

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From the same story:

The nuclear industry is well established in Canada, and especially in Ontario, which is home to the lion's share of the counter's nuclear power generation. However, provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan -- which is a major uranium producer -- have toyed with the idea of building nuclear reactors to provide power for oil sands production.

There’s those oil sands again. Although Canada does extract a lot of oil from the sands – it’s a process more akin to mining than drilling - the result is small compared to the potential. In an earlier post, we saw that director (and Canadian) James Cameron suggested using nuclear energy to power the extraction effort and was met by stony silence from officials.

I get that one: building the plant would be beneficial in general but committing one to help with the oil sands wouldn’t work very well economically and probably be considerable overkill. But that doesn’t mean the sands are sitting unmined. The United States gets about 22 percent of its oil from Canada and most of that (by a little) comes from the oil sands.

But the oil sands industry has come under increasing attack from environmental groups who complain about water and ground contamination, high instances of cancer in some communities downstream and the production of three times the amount of greenhouse gases as conventional oil operations.

This is a tough one to wrap one’s mind around. Clearly, the oil sands erect financial, practical and environmental hurdles that seem impossible to clear and still produce affordable – or more exactly, profitable – oil.

But equally clearly, Alberta’s Fort McMurray has become a boomtown as neighbor U.S.A. looks to Canada to help it leave behind middle Eastern-derived oil. (Even before that effort, Canada supplied more oil to America than did Saudi Arabia – 904,914 barrels in 2009 vs. 366,605, in thousands. See here for more. To make it a little more confusing, OPEC in total supplies more than Canada but OPEC includes Venezuela and Ecuador. You can decide how to tote it all up yourself.)

Financial sump hole or boon of the oil industry? Environmental disaster or ecologically responsible? I know what I think is true, but that’s not the same as knowing. This subject falls outside our brief, so further research will be sporadic – but if you’re interested, here’s a good place to start from the corporate perspective (Syncorp, in this case) and the non-corporate perspective (from MapleLeafWeb, which lays out some of the environmental and social impact issues.)

They’re called oil sands. What do you expect, a vista?

2 comments:

seth said...

" committing one to help with the oil sands wouldn’t work very well economically and probably be considerable overkill. "

You need to do a rethink.

You'd need 12 AP-1000's to replace all the natural gas produced tar sands process steam with nuclear. Cost a hell of a lot less too in the long run.

DocForesight said...

Wasn't the process heat aspect one of the advantages of SMRs for this type of application?

Rather than burn the coal or oil to produce steam, you "burn" the uranium or thorium and sell the oil at market prices. It looks like that is what the UAE, Saudi, Venezuela, etc are planning to do.