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By Robert Rapier on Dec 2, 2013 with 11 responses

How Alberta’s Oil Sands are Produced

Introduction

I spent the first week of November in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands around Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. In the previous two articles, I covered some of the environmental issues arising from the development of the oil sands.

In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part II I covered the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.

Today I want to discuss the actual process of converting the oil sands into oil. Some may feel that this should have been the first article I wrote, but because the development of the oil sands is environmentally controversial on many fronts, I thought it was important to go over environmental issues first before discussing the process. I think that if I had covered the process first, most of the comments and questions would have been about the environmental issues. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Nov 22, 2013 with 15 responses

Oil Sands and the Environment – Part II

Introduction

Today I continue coverage of my recent visit to the Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. I will be covering multiple aspects of oil sands production in a series of posts.

In last week’s post — Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I — I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. Today’s article will discuss the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.

Tailings Ponds

There are two primary ways of extracting bitumen from the oil sands. In situ production involves injecting steam into the ground to heat up the bitumen which is then pumped out of the ground. Surface mining is done when the resource is fairly close to the surface. During my trip we visited one in situ producer – Cenovus Energy – and one surface miner – Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL). These methods will be discussed in greater detail in next week’s post. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Nov 11, 2013 with 15 responses

Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I

Introduction

I spent the past week in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. During my trip I was told that the only person who ever asked as many questions as I did was when David Biello from Scientific American was a guest. (You can read one of David’s articles from his trip here).

I felt like I learned enough to write a book on the oil sands, so I have a great deal of information I want to share with readers in a series of articles. In these articles I will provide an overview of the oil sands, compare and contrast the different ways of processing them, discuss the environmental issues, and then discuss the particular companies that I visited on this trip — Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

I want to start this series with a 2-part discussion on the environmental issues. Generally when people think of oil sands, the environmental issues are foremost on their mind. That has always been the case with me, so most of the questions I asked during my trip related to the impact of oil sands development on the environment. This is a very contentious issue, and one in which the battle lines have been drawn. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Nov 1, 2013 with 19 responses

Soliciting Reader Questions for Oil Sands Tour

On Sunday, November 3rd, I am heading to Fort McMurray, Alberta for a tour of the oil sands operations. Here are the details from the initial email that I received inviting me on the trip:

Each year, the Consulate General partners with other U.S. Canadian missions to organize a tour of Canada’s oil sands for American media, mainly from the East Coast – for reporters/writers/editors from traditional publications, as well as those from other, more specialized publications, such as Energy Trends Insider.

The trip will go through Edmonton and Fort McMurray, including visits of mining/in situ/refining operations, as well as the chance to meet federal/provincial/local government officials, business and private sector contacts, environmental groups, possibly First Nations representatives, etc. We will look at the full range of topics related to the oil sands and their place in the Canada/U.S. energy partnership, including economic growth/job creation/competitiveness, environment and climate change concerns, innovation and technological development, and energy security.

Among other things, we will tour in situ operations at Cenovus and mining operations at Canadian Natural Resources Limited. But we are also meeting with Pembina Institute (the major environmental NGO in Alberta) as well as Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development (covering air, land, and water regulations; as well as climate change and GHG issues). CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Oct 23, 2013 with 12 responses

The Lasting Impact of the 1973 Oil Embargo

America’s Wake Up Call

Forty years ago Americans were getting a wake up call on energy security. For the first time, the point was being driven home that America’s energy security was increasingly determined by events beyond US borders. The events that took place in October 1973 had a tremendous effect on the American psyche, and continue to shape US energy policy to this day.

When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, concerns about energy were not high on the list of American priorities, but that situation would change dramatically during Nixon’s presidency. US oil production had increased at a fairly steady pace for over 100 years, and in November 1970 would reach 10 million barrels per day (bpd). Today that mark still stands as the all-time high for US oil production. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Oct 16, 2013 with 6 responses

The Ice That Burns

A Kindred Spirit

I have a very busy travel schedule this week, so this one is a little bit late and a bit rushed.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS). It was a funny sort of meeting, because I didn’t know he was coming, as he had come to visit someone else. When I was introduced to him we both said to each other “Hey, don’t I know you?”

We figured out that the reason we knew of each other is that we have both been advocates of using methanol as fuel. In fact, I referenced Dr. Luft and his frequent co-author Anne Korin in my book Power Plays. During his visit, he left a copy of their most recent book Petropoly: The Collapse of America’s Energy Security Paradigm. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Oct 8, 2013 with 19 responses

Why Gasoline Prices are Falling

Fall Means Falling Gasoline Prices

Fall is always a welcome change of pace for most people after a long, hot summer. Not only from the temperatures, but fall almost always brings relief at the gasoline pump. Pundits frequently notice this phenomenon during election years, and assume that vested interests are trying to manipulate prices to win elections. But there is a more straightforward explanation to what’s going on, and it isn’t limited to election years.

Regulating Smog

Everyone knows that gasoline evaporates. What you may not know is that there are numerous recipes for gasoline, and depending on the ingredients, the gasoline can evaporate at very different rates. And because gasoline vapors contribute to smog, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seasonally regulates gasoline blends to minimize emissions of gasoline vapors. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Oct 1, 2013 with 11 responses

Government Mandated Spending: A Lesson in Wasted Tax Dollars

Deja Vu All Over Again

A couple of weeks ago the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Inspector General released an audit report on how well taxpayer money has been utilized in the pursuit of commercializing integrated biorefineries:

Follow-up Audit of the Department of Energy’s Financial Assistance for Integrated Biorefinery Projects

The results are not pretty. In the opening section, the report notes:

“In our prior audit, Financial Assistance for Biomass-to-Ethanol Projects (DOE/IG-0513, July 2001), we reported that the Department had not met its goal to build a full-scale commercial biomass production facility by the year 2000, and provided recommendations for improving Program performance.”

Turns out that a dozen years later, it’s deja vu all over again. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Sep 23, 2013 with 37 responses

Nonrenewable Renewables?

The Energy Experts Reconvene at the WSJ

Generally when I find myself having to write a follow-up post to something I wrote, it’s because I obviously didn’t make my points clearly enough. I found this to be the case during a lively Twitter discussion following my latest contribution to the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) Energy Experts Panel. But I love these sorts of discussions because they help me hone the message I am trying to deliver.

This week the WSJ  began publishing the latest round of answers to questions that were submitted to their energy panel several weeks ago. The first question answered this week was: What is the single biggest misconception people have about renewable energy in the U.S.?

First, if you don’t know about the WSJ Expert Panels, I explained that in some detail here. Essentially, the WSJ has groups of experts in different fields, and they pose questions on various topics. We are asked to write ~ 300-word answers to these questions, which often means leaving out caveats and/or clarifications. The answers are more detailed than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but some topics leave a lot of issues unaddressed with just a 300-word answer. CONTINUE»

By Robert Rapier on Sep 17, 2013 with 9 responses

The Hydrogen Economy Revisited

My Energy Quest in the Desert

Some readers are aware that I am presently in Arizona working on a project. At some point I will write an in-depth article about the things I am working on, but today I want to pull the curtain back just a bit.

In a series of articles in 2010, I wrote about methanol’s potential as an alternative fuel. I dealt with the common criticisms about methanol — toxicity, corrosion, energy density — and I argued that methanol was a more economical and better technical solution to diversifying our energy options away from oil than is corn ethanol. (In fact, it doesn’t have to be either/or, but methanol has never stood a chance against corn ethanol politics).

In response to my methanol articles, BiofuelsDigest wrote Methanol: Biofuel to love or hate?, which suggested that I might have a conflict of interest with my defense of methanol. My response to that was that I had zero financial interests in methanol, and my company had zero financial interests in methanol. We had never produced methanol, and we had no plans to produce methanol. So there was no conflict of interest except as someone who was interested in the technical and economic merits of methanol from an energy policy standpoint. CONTINUE»