Oil sands production in Canada pretty much shut down by Fort McMurray wildfire

[Read the post]


Earth speaks.


Petro Chem Industry cares not for human life, fact.


I’m honestly wondering which of the two would be a larger carbon dioxide (and other pollutant) contributor… be very sad comment on just how polluting the tar sands are if it turned out that a massive raging forest fire was less ecologically damaging than the tar sands over the same time period.


The massive raging forest fire is waaay less ecologically damaging than the tar sands, and the forest will grow back in burned-over areas. I don’t think much will grow on the mined-over areas.

The carbon in the tar sands is fossil carbon – it was last in the atmosphere tens- or hundreds of millions of years ago – so it causes a net increase in atmospheric CO2. The fossil CO2 comes both from burning the fuel derived from the tar sands and from burning the fuel that it takes to extract, transport, crack, and refine the tar itself.

The carbon in the trees was last in the atmosphere, at most, decades ago, so burning them does not cause a net increase in atmospheric CO2.


Solid points, and well put. I was just thinking of it as a “Forest fire puts out x tons of CO2 per hour versus tar sands extraction per hour results in y tons of CO2 emissions; which is greater, x or y?”


It’s a sad commentary on something that anyone wonders that.

I’m an environmental chemist, off the top of my head I am going to say the oil sands would produce 6 to 8 orders of magnitude more carbon. That is 100,000 to 10,000,000 times as much carbon dioxide. That’s off the top of my head without doing one but of actual math.

And the trees that burned… other trees growing in that newly opened space will recapture a lot of it. It will take a couple generations to recapture that carbon from the fire.

Fire is natural, digging up deposits of carbon captured millennia ago is not.

Hell, the equipment used to dig UP the sands and keep them hot and liquidy enough to work with in any given year is probably more than the wildfire just released.


So, I hear Fort McMurray is experiencing some rapid climate change…


Far from cutting off production, it looks like it was slowed by 40-50%. Probably still a million barrels or $50M a day leaving the tar sands…


My question is: “What are the chances that the tar sands could catch fire where they have removed the overburden of soil?”

1 Like

In the boreal forest, fire is ecology.__


Yeah, the earth was like ‘fuck you people and your families for working in the oil sands, despite not having much education or other options! I’m gonna burn your houses down’ A lot of the people chased from Ft. McMurray came from places where the economy tanked and there just weren’t other opportunities.

Kate Beaton has a good cartoon about this

The idea that this is somehow karmic retribution is silly. It’s poignant and ironic that the fire happened where it did, but if it had burned another town in boreal Canada, climate change would still be considered an exacerbating factor.

It’s a complicated story - many of the people who work there are good people, they know that this industry isn’t sustainable in the long haul and they would jump ship if they could:

If nature was going to exact some payback, maybe it should have started with a certain climate change denying PM’s residence.


It tried, but he hid in a cupboard, sadly.


I had meant to answer that question, but got lazy after trying to do it on a per-acre basis. An acre of forest might have, at the most, 20 bone-dry ton (bdt) of biomass, which might turn into 40 tons of CO2 if completely burned – that’s equivalent to about 10 barrels of oil. Trees are not completely burned in a forest fire, and, better still much of the wood is turned into charcoal. Charcoal doesn’t turn into CO2, ever, unless it’s burned some more, so this carbon is effectively sequestered.

1 Like

Awesome! Thanks for the hard numbers :slight_smile:

(I teach/tutor science, but I’m too much of a dilettante to be able to pull in-depth data off the top of my head, which occasionally gets irksome).

So, plugging in the numbers… the fire has been burning since May 1st, and has burned 570k acres, which means, with your numbers, about 5.7 million barrels of oil, assuming complete burn, which, as you point out, is not the case, so let’s drop that down to 4 million barrels CO2 equiv, just for the round number (and it’s probably less than that, but putting that at the high end estimate). Hopping over to Wikipedia, the estimated daily production of oil from the tar sands is 1.3 million barrels per day… meaning that, over the course of 11 days, 14.3 million barrels of oil would be produced.


Well, this’ll be an ‘entertaining’ (read: appalling) little sound bite to share–that, at the very least, assuming worst case fire output and the 2009 oil production estimate, the fire is only about 1/7th as nasty (in terms of CO2 output) as the oil sands extraction, and this does not take into account the toxic byproducts or processing overhead from the actual mining.


The answer is probably likely - in many places, even along the banks of the Athabasca River, these deposits are exposed. The Athabasca Chipewyan, Cree and Dene peoples in that area used to use the bitumen as a convenient way to light a fire.

It could probably be extinguished quickly by using heavy equipment to smother hot spots or simply filling the pits with water. The larger risk is likely to refining and upgrading infrastructure, which has large amounts of this stuff concentrated in a small area.

Edit: Turns out, oil sands aren’t likely to burn, apparently

Also: equipment and processes are far more likely to go boom.

1 Like

I found that this 30-year time-lapse Landsat movie of the area around Fort McMurray provided some nice longer-term context on what’s going on up there…

1 Like

I feel sick.

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.