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Is There Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'? Canada Claims it Has Lots and the US Is Buying It

Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

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As Marlene waited for my scribbling to catch up to her rush of words, Mike rushed into the room yelling, “There’s been an explosion at CNRL!”

Panic shattered the afternoon quiet. Mike and one of their daughters darted outside and jumped into the family’s minivan to see if they could get closer to the plant, located just down the road. Marlene grabbed for her phone to start making calls to learn more. I threw on my boots and ran outside. A huge cloud of black smoke hung over the river. I caught a whiff of tar scent on the air.

It turned out that a coker at CNRL had caught fire about 30 minutes earlier. Five men had been injured, several with severe burns. The company was evacuating the plant. Meanwhile, no one in town seemed to know if they were in danger and, if so, what to do. “This is the problem,” Marlene said to me before going back inside to make more calls. “These companies all have their emergency procedures. But for us – nothing.”

In 1778, the Scotsman Alexander MacKenzie was charting the rivers of the far north when he came across an area of “bituminous fountains.” A century later, a Canadian named Charles Mair set out to learn more about what Canadian officials were calling “the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world.” Working with Métis guides, Mair found a place where the banks of the river were “streaked with oozing tar.” The local Cree said they used the stuff to seal and repair their canoes.

The Athabasca tar sands are the largest proven reserve of petroleum outside of Saudi Arabia. Unlike conventional oil deposits that lie deep underground or beneath the ocean, these are relatively shallow. The petroleum there formed about 100 million years ago and then, over eons, migrated upward, settling into the bottom of an ancient river where bacterial degradation mixed it with sand and silt. When piled into a Caterpillar dump truck, the result resembles packed brown sugar -- smeared with asphalt.

But though oil in the tar sands appears close, it’s incredibly difficult to get to. Separating the petroleum from the sand involves an energy intensive process that, according to environmental groups, makes it one of the dirtiest oils on Earth.

It takes two metric tons of ore to create a single barrel of oil. Not until 1967 did a company find a way to make the extraction profitable, and even then, high costs meant that tar sands oil wasn’t economically competitive. During the low oil prices of the 1980s, the tar sands industry nearly collapsed. As late as the 1990s many analysts were saying the effort was doomed. But as global oil reserves deplete and the “easy oil” runs out, the tar sands appear increasingly attractive. Tar sands production has doubled in the last decade as global oil companies have poured more than $50 billion into the region. By the end of 2010, the tar sands were producing 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. More than half of that goes to the United States.

Before they can begin digging up the tar sands, the oil companies first have to cut down the trees, peel off the top layer of peaty soil, and shove away the “overburden,” or subsurface rock. Getting the tar sands out of the ground is only the first chore. Then it has go through what’s called “upgrading.” First the sands pass through giant tumblers and separators to create a “bitumen froth.” Next, the mess is distilled into the distinct elements of petroleum -- butane, gasoline, kerosene, gas oil -- and run through a thermal conversion and a catalytic conversion to remove sulfur and coke. Finally, the different parts are recombined to create a synthetic crude oil. Only then is the product ready to go to a refinery.

 
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