Bitumen and/or bust


Esquire dispatches John Richardson to report on Fort McMurray, the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline.

So what does the damn stuff look like? I’ll show you, Tom says. In a long rectangular building with lots of tubes, he opens a faucet at a station and fills a paper cup with pure bitumen. Thick as melted chocolate, it smells like tar. “That’s our product,” he says. To the touch, it’s lighter than it looks. Mix it with liquid natural gas and it flows. This is what goes into the pipeline under the name “dilbit,” short for diluted bitumen. “That’s what it looks like,” he says. “That’s what all the fuss is about.”

Awe seems the appropriate response. This greasy black gunk with the protean powers of money itself, able to metamorphose into everything from my iPhone to the fancy petroleum-based REI jacket I am wearing, a staggering combination of chemistry and human ingenuity. And yet, according to one credible and centrist study, if Canada caps the oil sands at 1.6 million barrels a day, the world has only a 50 percent chance of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million — the target most scientists think will keep the earth from warming more than a few degrees in this century. Current approved flow is already 1.6 million barrels a day. Projects in construction bump that to 2.3 million. Projects announced or in application send it to more than 5 million barrels a day. So the bottom line is: If the production of oil sands keeps on growing at the rate it is now growing, the temperature of the world could go up 11 degrees by the end of the century. You look down at the cup, a sludge the color of hot chocolate. Is this the way the world ends?


Bitumen and/or bust

  1. Welcome back Wherry, hope you enjoy your hols.

    “You look down at the cup, a sludge the color of hot chocolate. Is this the way the world ends?”

    Wired ~ Apocalypse Not:

    Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander’s word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

    To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.The classic apocalypse has four horsemen, and our modern version follows that pattern, with the four riders being chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals). Let’s visit them each in turn.


    • Melted chocolate, not hot chocolate.

    • Err, some of those almost got us. Someone in your immediate family would have skin cancer if we didn’t fluke out and finish the chemistry (same CFC equation product is imput for 100000 cycles till ionizing solar radiation destroys molecule) around 30 yrs ago. Cuban Missile Crisis?
      I have no illusion rich people will permit the most efficient carbon price/cap or revenue utility. But giving the cap/tax money to someone like this: http://www.ineostechnologies.com/103-key_capabilities.htm
      …to develop renewable energy plastic product would be the way to go if capitalism costed AGW. Tony, in your world WWIII happened easy; it is the neocon world-line.

  2. CO2 emissions from US electricity derived from coal is well over a magnitude larger than the CO2 emissions from the oilsands, and will be for the forseeable future.

    Thermal coal exports from the United States to Asia are up like 100% over the last two years.

    All the coal mostly comes from blue states so nobody in the US talks about it. No movie star are lying down on the rail tracks in front of the coal trains. The ports where the coal are exported from are blue states.

    An over-10 times larger kettle is calling the pot black.

    • “All the coal mostly comes from blue states so nobody in the US talks about it”

      Does the enlarged fear center in your conservative brain have a voice that tells you to ignore the facts, they’re all out to get you?

      +/- 75% of US coal is produced in red states:

      • He obviously doesn’t listen to enough country music.

  3. So, Napptha or whatever the green energy (agri and water desalination too) plastics fractions are of petro: how much of the column can be maximized as green products?

  4. Boils down to economics. If the price of a barrel drops below $75, the tar sands are dead. Developing green technologies are the way to ensure that the it dies. But you won’t see any funding of this kind of R&D by the CPC government.

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