Could Nuclear Energy Power the Bitumen Behemoth?
Another look at nuclear energy in Alberta
Albertans may soon be asked to consider nuclear power as not just a more reliable source of energy but also a “green” solution for reducing climate-altering emissions and ever-increasing costs of oilsands operations. And while the prospect remains very much in its infancy, a line in the sand between two arguments is beginning to form. Is nuclear energy too clean, reliable and affordable to ignore or is it too risky, too costly and just too crazy an idea in fossil-fuel-rich Alberta to be taken seriously?
Jerry Crown takes us inside the debate.
The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) pegs the province’s oilsands reserves at 174 billion barrels of recoverable oil, reserves second only to Saudi Arabia. These vast deposits of oil-rich bitumen are found in an area twice the size of New Brunswick in the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake regions, with Fort McMurray at the hub. In its raw state, bitumen has few direct applications beyond road construction. But (in simple terms) adding some hydrogen and a lot of energy along the way alchemizes bitumen to yield synthetic crude oil.
What were initially dubbed “tar sands” truly became “oilsands” in 1967 when the Great Canadian Oilsands Company, now known as Suncor Energy, launched a 48,000 bpd mine and upgrading facility north of Fort McMurray. Today, several majors – led by EnCana, Suncor, Imperial Oil, CDN Natural Resources and Husky Energy – have transformed northeastern Alberta into a mega oil production region by any global standard, with production last year close to 1.5 million bpd. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates growth to 4.3 bpd by 2020.
The oilsands thus contain a theoretical ocean of petroleum. But transforming the molasses-like bitumen into oil requires huge amounts of energy and water. Natural gas is the energy of choice for all major oilsands producers, and, according to the National Energy Board, about 0.4 million cubic feet of gas is needed to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil – not in itself daunting, given that every barrel of oil contains energy equivalent to six million cubic feet of gas.
Up against the resource wall
The problematic numbers for oilsands producers, however, include cost and supply of natural gas, and environmental impact.
“Western Canadian conventional gas supply started to decline in 1999,” says Bill Gwozd of Calgary-based Ziff Energy consultants. Pointing to Ontario’s decision to replace its coal-fired electricity generators with gas-fired units, Gwozd adds, “If you look into the future, there’ll be less gas available because supply will be down and you’ll have more gas demand for the oilsands.”