April 12th, 2024

Bitumen the answer to Alberta’s energy woes, says energy journalist


By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on November 21, 2023.

The Doomsday Clock reads 90 seconds to midnight. When the clock strikes midnight, there’s little hope; it’s too late.

For context, in 2002 the clock read seven minutes until midnight, despite the terrorist attacks the year before on Sept. 11. The reasons time is running out: threat of nuclear weapon use from Russia, biological threats and disease outbreaks, cyber-crimes, and of course, climate change.

The clock is managed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit, independent science publication that tracks and discusses disruptive, man-made risks to global safety and security.

In Alberta there are limits to what can be done to turn back the metaphorical hands of time. It’s unlikely the province can intervene in Putin’s attacks on Ukraine, and no amount of polite Canadian pleading is going to influence him to keep is finger off the button of nuclear war. If the Covid-19 outbreak is any indication of the response to biological threat, there’s not a lot of hope for Alberta, and cyber-crime is beyond the province’s scope entirely. However, as a leader in the oil and gas industry, there is one area where Alberta could make a splash.

Contrary to popular narratives, it’s not about shutting it all down, or forcing Albertans to disavow the oil and gas industry that has brought the province prosperity and economic growth. Nor does a pivot towards a brighter future involve installing windmills and solar panels on every corner, at least not according to energy journalist Markham Hislop.

Hislop, a long-time veteran in energy media, spoke to SACPA on Oct. 26. In his presentation, ‘Unethical Oil,’ he warned that in the very near future, Albertans will be footing the bill for the negligence of oil companies, who are the real culprits responsible for abandoned wells or restoring the land after it is used.

But Hislop, and scientists around the world, believe there is a better way, and bitumen may be the answer both economically and environmentally to Alberta’s industry conundrum.

At the World Petroleum Congress 2023 held in Calgary, Hislop attended a panel discussion on innovation in products, moderated by Ibrahim Abba, head of Technology Commercialization, Technology Oversight & Coordination for Aramco in Saudi Arabia.

“While I’m there,” Hislop explains, “Dr. Abba says, never mind the energy transition. In addition to that, there is a materials transition, how we make carbon fibre, how we make materials for our houses, all of that is undergoing a revolution and a lot of that advanced materials will use hydrocarbons (oil and gas) as feedstock.”

In 2017, Alberta Innovates launched the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program which looks to develop technologies that turn bitumen into solid products such as carbon fibre.

“Bitumen is an amazingly valuable resource,” says Hislop, “because at the molecular level, a bitumen molecule looks like a sheet. It has all sorts of little molecules attached to it, whereas a hydrocarbon molecule is very simple…. because of the complexity and shape of the bitumen molecule, you can then manipulate that and turn it into other materials. They’re about two years away from being able to take bitumen and turn it into the precursor for automotive grade carbon fibre.”

Despite the program and versatility of bitumen, Hislop says the Government of Alberta is doing little to pivot away from the oil and gas industry as it stands today. “There’s no interest in looking at the other set of evidence, there’s no interest in planning for a worst-case scenario, or even a not great scenario. To me that’s a dereliction of duty,” he says, despite having heard personally from leaders in the carbon fibre manufacturing industry that if Alberta can develop the technology, companies such as Zoltek would invest in manufacturing plants in the province.

According to Hislop, experts currently believe that carbon fibre, a strong and lightweight material often found in cars, could be produced at half of the price using bitumen as it is currently being used.

“Imagine a world where the demand for bitumen as a fuel feedstock declines over time. But you build a carbon fibre industry that uses bitumen as a feedstock and you grow that over time, and you do that in Alberta, so not only can you maintain the employment and investment in the oil sands, but then you can also create a huge advanced materials industry that then creates new jobs, new investment, new supply chains, new highly technical positions.”

Hislop says the development of bitumen into non-combustible products goes beyond just manufacturing and could include developing recycling methods as well, creating a circular economy. Given that Canada is the leading producer of bitumen, most of it coming from Alberta, there is the advantage of having an ongoing supply.

“Here we are, the three biggest and most advanced jurisdictions in turning oil into materials; China, Saudi Aramco, and Alberta. What an amazing head start, we’re world leaders in this.”

Hislop says as consumer awareness increases and the global market shifts to meet the demands for cleaner energy and production, while also striving to meet increasing environmental standards, it’s reasonable to fear that Alberta will be left behind if the province continues to favour a slow transition to a speedier one that is recommended by some experts.

“If you look into the future based on what is going on today, Alberta, done right, could have a far more prosperous future than it has ever had, but you can’t do that doubling down on the status quo.”

With the future of the economy seeming uncertain there is an air of optimism in Hislop’s suggestion.

“During a time of deep disruption and change, you have to assume that whatever you think was going to unfold, will not unfold. There will be too many wrinkles, so, you have to be better prepared.”

Hislop says that though the government seems set on their plan A, it might be time to consider this cutting-edge plan B.

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IMO

The environmental impact of the oil sands is an issue that has been extremely divisive. As with the extraction and use of any fossil fuel, negative environmental effects arise as a result of the extraction, upgrading, and processing of bitumen from the oil sands. Although some steps are being taken to reduce the severity of these impacts – such as reclamation – there are still associated climate, air, water, and other ecological effects. Since there are so many environmental impacts that can be discussed, the main concerns have been broken down into several core issues including:

  • Tailings Ponds Impacts: Tailings ponds are settling ponds that contain the waste byproduct of oil sands extraction and upgrading. They are a mix of water, sand, silt, clay, unrecovered hydrocarbons, and other contaminants.
  • Climate Impacts: The greenhouse gas emissions for oil sand extraction and processing are significantly larger than for conventional crude oil. These emissions contribute to global warming and the enhanced greenhouse effect.
  • Water Impacts: The extraction of bitumen from oil sands requires a large amount of water, and thus water use is a concern when looking at oil sands extraction. Water used in the oil sands can be recycled, but only small amounts of this water are returned to the natural cycle.
  • Air Quality Impacts: Along with greenhouse gases, other pollutants are released into the air during oil sands operations. These pollutants are harmful to the environment and human health, and include gases such as NOx and SOx.
  • Reclamation: Reclamation is the attempt to return previously used land – whether it was used for surface mining or as a tailings ponds – to their natural state. The chemicals in the tailings are factors that can make reclamation difficult.

Extracting oil sands also have considerable impacts on people, especially First Nations peoples.
https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Environmental_impacts_of_oil_sands

SophieR

All good points, IMO. Perhaps we should have a moratorium on further bitumen extraction until they come up with an effective solution for each of these impacts. People and our environment are more important than profits appropriated by foreign mega-corporations.