EXTREME! Oil Extraction
October 2, 2015 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Project Oil Sands - "In the late 1950s, Dr. Manley Natland, a passionate, life­long geologist working for the Richfield Oil Corporation, hatched a gonzo idea to harness the power of a nuclear explosion for the benefit of bitumen extraction in Alberta’s oil sands. He proposed a plan to plant an atomic bomb deep below the oil sands, set it off and start pumping the oil freed up by the intense heat of the explosion."
posted by thatwhichfalls (25 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not sure if real life or a Vonnegut novel.
posted by dudemanlives at 8:14 AM on October 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


Saner than Operation Plowshare, although that is not saying much. I wonder if they had a way to prevent fission byproducts from entering into the oil that was being pumped? This was back when lead in your gas was no big deal, but I think cesium in your gas may have been a step too far.

Still, fascinating and at least it wasn't exposing people to wind dispersed fallout (at least initially).

The best use of our nuclear stockpiles is still an Orion Drive spacecraft, but I think current international treaties ban that. This comes in a very distant second. (In terms of actually exploding the bombs. The best use is taking all the plutonium for RTG powered space probes and craft and dismantling everything else to do with the damn things.)
posted by Hactar at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


In the late 1950s, Dr. Manley Natland, a passionate, life­long geologist working for the Richfield Oil Corporation, had a really, really bad idea. I mean, really, the worst of ideas. Real bad.
posted by maryr at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


And his name is literally "Manley"? Really? Could you be more on the nose, universe?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:22 AM on October 2, 2015


Not so bad or crazy that the United States wasn't willing to give it a try.

It worked about as well as you might expect.
posted by multics at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


I guess if you messed up the math and your bomb was too big ... Purple Rain?
posted by notyou at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2015


I don't know if it was that bad an idea--if he had done it they wouldn't be mining the stuff today. That assumes they figured out the stuff was poison pretty quickly and never distributed it.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2015


Given the more recent success of fracking, this probably would have worked which is not a particularly happy thought.

Interesting that he got a patent on the idea - as if there were that many competitors with nuclear devices in the 1950s. And as if the threat of a patent infringement lawsuit would have deterred the Soviets from copying his invention.
posted by three blind mice at 8:28 AM on October 2, 2015


Considering the radioactive contamination in Operation Plowshare attempts to recover more natural gas out of a gas field, Project Gasbuggy, this would never have worked. Those three gas fields that had such experiments run on them are now declared unsafe to use, drilling is banned, and the concept shelved as unworkable.
posted by Blackanvil at 8:29 AM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


this would never have worked. Those three gas fields that had such experiments run on them are now declared unsafe to use, drilling is banned, and the concept shelved as unworkable.

So, what you are saying is: net positive?

I have read in the past few days about new tech (some of which involves citrus) which can extract the bitumen from oil sands more cheaply than the US$67/barrel they need today. Apparently they claim they can get the cost of extraction down to about US$30/bbl.

So, yay! Hydrocarbons for all!
posted by Mezentian at 8:34 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting that he got a patent on the idea - as if there were that many competitors with nuclear devices in the 1950s.

Patents on nuclear weapon design, technologies and applications are more common than you might (if you're even the tiniest bit sane) imagine.
posted by multics at 8:37 AM on October 2, 2015


What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:39 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Considering that underground extraction already leads to problems like a 2-year continuous bitumen leak, and that fracking is very likely to implicated in local earthquakes, yeah, I'd put this in the very bad, no-good, let's-never-speak-of-this-again pile.
posted by bonehead at 8:40 AM on October 2, 2015


And yet, and yet: "Beginning in 2004, energy companies began lobbying for drilling rights within the three mile perimeter. Local politicians argued against allowing wells in the area since too little is known about the potential radioactive contamination from the blast." [source]

right now I am working on a graduate degree that might end up drawing some very lucrative job offers from the oil and gas industry. and sometimes the thought of all that money is pretty tempting, until I read things like this.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 8:45 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


And his name is literally "Manley"? Really? Could you be more on the nose, universe?

And the Premier who approved the project was "Manning", if you want to double your "Man".
posted by clawsoon at 8:58 AM on October 2, 2015




fracking is very likely to implicated in local earthquakes

Fraccing and wastewater reinjection onto bedrock are implicated in seismicity.
No question.
One of your states (Oklahoma, maybe?) has already admitted as much, and earlier this year it will not fight lawsuits over damage caused by fraccing.

StatesFirst produced a 150-page document this week which addresses the issues. The UK had some earthquakes in the Bowland Basin too, and as I recall Germany did when they were playing around with geothermal a few years back.

right now I am working on a graduate degree that might end up drawing some very lucrative job offers from the oil and gas industry. and sometimes the thought of all that money is pretty tempting, until I read things like this.

If nothing else, read This Changes Everything. I haven't even looked at any debunking sites yet, and I am sure they exist, but if nothing else it will make you question the orthodoxy of claims made by the extraction industries. And even if all the climate science is wrong, that's no bad thing.
posted by Mezentian at 9:12 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Keep in mind that fracking and bitumen SAGD extraction are very, very different things, and very different again from a large concussive blast (nuclear or not).

My point was mainly that the basins the Alberta bitumen are in some places fragile, and are fragile to various methods of attack. The long-term CNRL leak is thought to have been caused by erosion of salts by the heated steam/water. SAGD isn't a fracture extraction method, it's a thermal physico-chemical one.

Let's understand the limits of lining up of various species of fruit here, and realize that we're not talking about easily comparable techniques.
posted by bonehead at 9:58 AM on October 2, 2015


SAGD isn't a fracture extraction method, it's a thermal physico-chemical one.

It still caused fractures, though. And put enough pressure that the bitumen has been coming to the surface, and they haven't, so far as I know, figured out how to stop it.

The problem with fraccing and/or oil sands extraction is, basically, it's all a big science experiment. Short of spending money trying to figure out what might happen in the geology of the various basins before you do it, the industry view seems to be: do it, and worry about the impact later.

Personally, I think it is hilarious that oil sands need (apparently) $67/bbl to be profitable, but now it's actually more costly to cease production than it is to keep on truckin',

The free market works!
posted by Mezentian at 10:16 AM on October 2, 2015


Not so bad or crazy that the United States wasn't willing to give it a try.

The Soviets tried it too, and were much more enthusiastic:
All together, the Program 7 conducted 115 nuclear explosions. Among them:
  • 39 explosions for the purpose of geological exploration (trying to find new natural gas deposits by studying seismic waves produced by small nuclear explosions)
  • 25 explosions for intensification of oil and gas debits
  • 22 explosions for creating underground storage for natural gas
  • 5 explosions for extinguishing large natural gas fountains
  • 4 explosions for creating channels and dams (including the Chagan test in Kazakhstan, and the Taiga test on the potential route of the Pechora-Kama Canal)
  • 2 explosions for crushing ore in open-pit mines
  • 2 explosions for creating underground storage for toxic wastes
  • 1 explosion to facilitate coal mining in an underground mine
  • 19 explosions were performed for research purposes (studying possible migration of the radioactivity from the place of the explosions).
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:57 AM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Personally, I think it is hilarious that oil sands need (apparently) $67/bbl to be profitable, but now it's actually more costly to cease production than it is to keep on truckin'

Not to derail, but this comment reminds me of my GF's uncle who works in the coal industry in WV and his current task is to keep all the mining equipment running in a mine that is not currently producing. See this mine got bought by some private equity firm that is trying to flip the assets and rather than shut the the equipment off while it is idle, they want to keep everything running so that when they bring prospective buyers around everything looks on the up and up. It's not quite as ridiculous as is may sound because equipment like that has a tendency to seize up if it's down for extended periods of time, but the thought of all this underground equipment running 24/7/365 doing absolutely nothing seems kind of poetic. Like if those machines were sentient, would they feel unfulfilled, like some low level bureaucrat writing reports that he knows nobody will ever read?
posted by dudemanlives at 12:14 PM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


some private equity firm that is trying to flip the assets
So it's like coal equivalent of an Internet Startup?
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:57 PM on October 2, 2015


So it's like coal equivalent of an Internet Startup?

Sometimes it's good to be reminded how much that's weird about modern nerd capitalism is just what was already weird about capitalism.
posted by brennen at 3:21 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


See Mezentian's link to This Changes Everything, above.

Also, let's be thankful those same technocrats didn't follow through on their plans to dig a trench through the Rockies to move water from Alberta to California using nuclear explosions.

Every time I read about this stuff now I start thinking about Al Bartlett's lectures about how much oil we consume and the doubling rate. This is the math that says that every time the amount of oil consumed doubles, we use as much oil in that period as in the entire previous history of the resource. Which answers a whole bunch of questions.
posted by sneebler at 3:24 PM on October 2, 2015


The Soviets tried it too, and were much more enthusiastic:
Not so much. From the article:
According to Yablokov, the level of plutonium in the drinking water of Vilyuy region 20 years after the explosion is ten thousand times higher than the maximal sanitary norm.
I visited the oil field region in Khazakstan where tactical battlefield nuclear weapons had been repurposed in the attempt to mobilise viscous oil. The ground is dimpled like a golf ball at a scale of football pitches. I learned from the site manager I was visiting who worked on the program that it was abandoned for the fairly obvious reason - there is no market for radioactive oil.

I wore a radioactive monitoring badge on the visit, but on the return flight, airport security made me pass it through the scanner and toasted it, so I don't know what my exposure was. Fortunately, I had already fathered my children by that point in my career.
posted by falcon at 1:44 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


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