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Four Transport Alternatives to Canadian Tar Sands

August 31st, 2011 · No Comments

Yet another guest post from the thoughtful BruceMcF.

There has recently been a flurry of activism regarding regulatory approval of the “XL Pipeline” in support of bitumen production from Canadian Tar Sands. Along with hundreds arrested in front of the White House, this is an issue that has attracted substantial attention from a variety of bloggers.  Since Tar Sands are billed as a Crude Oil substitute, and about 70% of US Petroleum consumption goes to transport, I thought it was time to look at the issue.

As the proponents of bitumen production from Tar Sands are selling it as a Crude Oil Substitute, I thought that what I would do would be to see what alternatives there are out there.

But the XL Pipeline itself is a bit small of a target to aim at, so the question I am looking at is, what alternatives would there be to entire potential output of Canadian Tar Sands bitumen? Hence, four transport alternatives to Canadian Tar Sands.

The Magnitude of the Substitution Task

According to the US Energy Information Administration, total US consumption of crude oil and petroleum products was 19.2m barrels per day (805m gallons per day).

As reported to UK’s MoneyWeek by Byron King in 2007,

Under the best of scenarios, Canada will have 2.5-2.8 million bpd of bitumen production, certainly not all of which will be available for export to the U.S. through pipelines not yet built.

For simplicity, assume it’s 2.8m bpd, and all of it is for export to the US. 2.8m/19.2m is about 15%, right?

Well, not so fast. Crude Oil is produced at a range of Energy Return on Investment, originally a 100x or more return now sometimes as low as a 10x return. And Tar Sands? Byron King, again:

I discussed EROI in an article on Peak Oil, published Nov. 8, 2006. In general, EROI for Canadian tar sands exploitation is extremely low, on the order of 5-10%, as efficient relative-to-traditional oil recovery of conventional petroleum.

That is not an EROI of 5%-10% (as I originally misread), but an EROI on the order of 5.5. With net energy of 4.5 relative to each gross energy of 5.5, that is a net energy yield of about 82%. So as an energy supply, about 18% of the energy in Tar Sands bitumen represents the energy cost of producing it, and only about 82% represents the energy yield. So to replace 2.8m bpd worth of Tar Sands bitumen requires saving 2.3m bpd worth of petroleum, or about 12% of current US consumption.

Since transport represents about 67.5% of US consumption of petroleum, the target of 0.28 million barrels per day here is saving roughly 18% of our transportation systems oil consumption.
Solution One: Steel Interstate ~ Problem Solved Several Times Over

The first solution is to build Electric Rapid Freight Rail Tollways that will pay for their original construction costs with access and user fees. An interest subsidy over the period until the construction costs have been refunded is enough to get the Steel Interstate systems up and running.

From a sunday Train in May, 2010, Sunday Train: Working on the Railroad for Energy Independence

I described the Steel Interstate approach to Electrified, Rapid Freight Rail a couple of months ago, and then polished up the network map a bit the following week.So, broad brush strokes here:

  • 15,000miles+ of STRACNET corridors electrified with rail improvements that allow scheduled slots for 100mph Rapid Freight Rail
  • Built primarily in existing freight rail rights of way by distinct government owned, not for profit “Line Development Banks”
  • Those using the infrastructure pay Access and User fees that cover up-front capital costs
  • Interest costs covered by a $0.01/gallon tax on imported petroleum, rising to $0.05/gallon over five years

As far as the means of financing the interest rate subsidy ~ imported petroleum is one of the products that does not have a tariff rate schedule under the WTO system, so a cents per gallon tax on imported petroleum would not face that obstacle. However, if you have a better source of finance, I’m all ears.

But in any event, half of the nation’s long haul truck traffic into electric freight trains is about 10% of our nation’s oil consumption in transportation, so we’re halfway there, with just under 8% to go.
Here In My Car …

As of 1999, consumption of fuel by “light vehicles” (cars, motorcycles, SUV’s, pick-ups and vans) was 126,354m gallons annually, which is 8.2m bpd, roughly 40% of our transport energy use. The 8% we are still looking for to render the Tar Sand imports unecessary is only one fifth of the total “light vehicle” fuel consumption.


  • Solution 2. Convert 20% of our “light vehicle short wheelbase” motor vehicle fleet to electric
  • Solution 3. Focus on doubling the relative fuel efficiency of 20% of our “light vehicle short wheelbase” motor vehicle fleet
  • Solution 4. Focus on increasing the relative fuel efficiency of 40% of our “light vehicle long wheelbase” motor vehicle fleet by 50%.

This is the same as eliminating 30% of the “short wheelbase” fuel consumption and 10% of the “long wheelbase” fuel consumption, and since the “short wheelbase” is over half the total, that’s a weighted average of over 20% of our light vehicle fuel consumption.
And the List Goes On

A plan that has no redundancy is brittle, so this plan is incomplete until we have some leeway in it. For 20% leeway, we need two 10% “slices” of the targe. So the target for each slice is to save 0.23 million barrels per day fuel consumption.

Eliminate 3% of our “light vehicle short wheelbase” motor vehicle fleet vehicle miles traveled through zoning reform reducing travel required and replace a further 2% with walking and cycling.

For commercial aviation, about 40% of fuel would have to be saved, which could be done through a combination of High Speed Rail to replace shorter (and more fuel intensive) flights and increased energy efficiency for long haul flights.

It may be noted that there is research and development afoot into more efficient means of recovering bitumen from Tar Sand. The so-called “toe-heel” method which allows for underground rather than strip mine recovery and which leaves more of the wastes behind underground rather than bringing them to the surface to rest in settlement ponds for decades or longer, promises to be both more energy efficient, and more water efficient. And, of course, it does not require the devastation of an area of Boreal forests and peat bogs larger than the present state of Florida {though nte that as climate chaos proceeds, being ‘larger than the state of Florida may one day be nowhere near as impressive a statement.}

However, this only underlines the foolishness of treating the current bitumen production from Tar Sands as if There Is No Alternative to producing and consuming it today. TINA reasoning implies that much of the Tar Sands that might have been produced using a more efficient and less damaging technology was instead produced with less efficiency and maximum damage ~ all so that a more fossil fuel rich present can take it away from a more fossil fuel poor future, while leaving that future to cope with the crippling of that portion of our global life support system.

And the Climate Chaos picture is even worse: most of the hydrogen-rich light components of the petroeleum has escaped from tar sands, so that it starts out being about as bad a greenhouse gas emitter as mineral coal. Then add the climate impact of the energy sources used to extract the bitumen from the Tar Sands: unless that energy is carbon neutral, it is worse than even coal.

So its an eminently replaceable net energy supply, from a product that is questionable to produce at all with established techniques, and which would be financially impossible under any prudent carbon pricing scheme …

… and that is even before taking the external costs of forest destruction and toxic wastes to be left on the surface for decades to centuries, its an absurd enterprise.

When Tar Sands were covered on the Oil Drum in 2007, they were described as “The Oil Junkie’s Last Fix”. I don’t see any reason to disagree with the description.

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Tags: Energy · guest post · trains · transportation