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Mineral Resources Conservaton Update

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When Entrusted to my Care was first published in 1966, Grand MacEwan raised conservation issues not yet discovered by the media and public. These concerns included dwindling natural resources, water conservation, air quality, industrial wastes, animal rights, soil fertility, and too rapid development. Entrusted To My Care
Copyright 1986 Western Producer Prairie Books
243 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-175-4.

It is in the area of non-renewable resources that the Canadian and American conscience should be most reproving. Nobody contends that oil and gas and iron ore should remain deep in the earth forever. But citizens of later generations will have some harsh words for those who mined and sold most of Canada's recoverable reserves of conventional oil in 40 years after the discovery of the rich Leduc field and for those who condoned the haste in converting this part of the treasure of the ages to spending money or hoarding money, quickly.

True, Canadian coal will last much longer and the Athabasca oil sands are quantitatively fabulous, but both must be treated as non-renewable. Posterity will question very sternly this generation's right to sell the "cream" or easily reached portions while leaving the difficult and deeper and more costly deposits for the dear grandchildren whose needs will be as great and who will believe their inherited rights are no less valid.

Still, it is appropriate to enquire about "the balance sheet" for the products of mines and wells and the prospects for the years ahead, regardless of how nuclear power measures up in meeting human needs.

Prospecting and mining for needed minerals go on apace; new mines are opened and old and exhausted ones are shut down without ceremony. In 1982, notwithstanding the depressed state of the markets for certain mineral substances, the value of all mineral production in Canada-including coal and petroleum-was $33.1 billion. For a nation of 25 million people, it represented a per capita average return of more than $1,300. By that year, also, the center of mining activity in Canada had shifted; Ontario, which had long been the leading province in the production and sales of minerals, had been displaced by Alberta, following its rapid rise in the sale of oil and gas.

By 1984 it was taking about 50 million barrels of oil per day to accommodate the world demand-over 15 billion barrels per year indicating the extent to which members of the human family have come to depend upon petroleum. Most of the oil moving in international channels was coming from the fabulously rich fields in Arabia and neighboring countries in the Middle East. As North Americans came to know, any serious rupture in the movement of Middle Eastern oil could bring a crisis to the oil-consuming world community.

But even the amazing reserves in that part of the world will not last forever and everybody is entitled to speculate. Published in 1982, the World Energy Outlook estimated global reserves of conventional oil at 650 billion barrels (90 billion tonnes), enough to last for 35 years at 1980 rate of use, still not a long time in the lives of nations. The dependent world comes a little closer to the day when "the well goes dry."

Members states in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), formed in 1960, became a powerful world force and in the exercise of new strength, did, indeed, plunge the world into an energy crisis in 1973. If good came from it, it was in teaching the importing countries a solemn lesson about the importance of safeguarding their reserves and supplies and gaining a better degree of independence in meeting their own needs.

Canada's oil and gas reserves are obviously of great importance to the nation but not a big factor in the world trade. Recent figures show this country producing about 1.5 percent of the world's crude oil and Canada and the United States and Mexico together accounting for 18 percent. But in consumption, the percentages are very different. On a per capita basis, Canada and the United States continue to be the world's biggest users; together, they take about 30 percent of the world output.

Canada in 1982, according to the Canadian Petroleum Association, produced 1.06 million barrels of conventional crude oil per day or 387 million barrels in the year. To that total could be added 112,000 barrels per day of synthetic crude from the two company plants working the oil sands near Fort McMurray. But the sobering part of the story was that Canada's proven reserve of conventional crude dropped in that year to 5.2 billion barrels, just half what it was in 1970. Thus the ratio between proven reserves and withdrawals was about 13.3 to 1, meaning that without imported supplies and in the absence of new discoveries, the reserves would last 13.3 years at the 1982 rate of use.

Detracting further from the outlook is the fact that new sources of oil become constantly harder and more costly to find and develop. There are, of course, the stupendous oil sands for which it is difficult to find new adjectives and from which oil is now flowing via pipeline, and also the offshore Hibernia field and the prospect of more. Estimates of the amount of oil in the Athabasca sands range as high as 600 and 800 billion barrels although only a fraction of it is seen as recoverable by present methods. It is expected that more will be recovered by an in situ process involving the injection of heat to thin the oil and cause it to flow to nearby well holes. This, it is calculated, would extend recovery by an additional 200 billion barrels.

But the good fortune of having the oil sands, the heavy oil, the off-shore Hibernia, and so on in no way removes the importance of diligence in the conservation of petroleum resources, wherever they happen to be found.

Canada's natural gas resources seemed enormous and producers have often complained about unsold surplus. Production increased by more than 700 percent between 1958 and 1983, which much of it passing through pipelines to distant markets in Eastern Canada and the United States. Giving some indication of the activity, oil and gas pipelines in Canada in 1980 totalled more then 150,000 miles (240,000 kilometres) in length.

It is understandable that the person who owns a supply of natural gas would wish to sell it, but discussions about gas surplus should be conducted in the light of 1982 proven reserves of 91 trillion cubic feet (2.6 trillion cubic meters), which happens to be not more than about 36 times the volume of production in that year. Canada produced a trillion cubic feet (.028 trillion cubic meters) became about equally commonplace.

Export demand fluctuated but the domestic sales just moved steadily upward. Declines in exports, when they occurred, brought complaints from those who held to the belief that gas in the ground should not be allowed to remain. Citizens of later generations will have different views.


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