The Man-Made Miracle of Oil from Sand

A dispatch from Alberta's oil sands

Fort McMurray, Alberta—Standing on the edge of the immense and spectacular pit of an oil sands mine for the first time last week, I was surprised by a sense of exhilaration. Later, seven stories up, equipped with earplugs, and clad in bright blue overalls, I marveled at the cascades of black bitumen froth bubbling over the sides of a separation cell like a giant witch’s cauldron. The scale of the enterprise and the sheer ingenuity involved in wresting value and sustenance from the hands of a stingy Mother Nature provoked in me a feeling close to glory.

Yet as I stood at the edge of the mine, I understood that lots of people viewing the same sight would be horrified by it and outraged by my enthusiasm for it. They would, instead, see the pit as a deep wound in the earth, amounting almost to a desecration.

Can I explain myself to those who see mining oil sands as a moral offense? I plead humanism. Modern capitalism and the technology it engenders has lifted a significant proportion of humanity out of our natural state of abject poverty for the first time in history. Even now, depending on the cycles of nature to renew supplies of fuel (in the form of wood and manure) means poverty, disease, and early death for millions.

I, too, am moved by the beauty of nature and awed by its intricate complexities. I have experienced the Zen of the sheer physicality of hiking or snorkeling over the psychedelic reefs of the Maldives. But human technology can be awesomely beautiful as well. So it was for me at the oil sands in Alberta.

So how did I happen to be standing at the edge of the Millennium oil sands mine? I was on a propaganda trip with other journalists and bloggers paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest oil and natural gas lobby in Washington, D.C. The API and Canadian oil companies are anxious about the massive Dirty Oil Sands campaign launched by leading environmentalist lobby groups. So they invite journalists that they hope might be sympathetic to their concerns to see for themselves what is going on.

The anti-oil sands activists specifically want to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport synthetic oil produced from oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. They allege that producing oil sands synthetic crude releases far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than does conventional oil. They also claim that the pipeline could burst, endangering surface water and aquifers. 

Oil sands yield up fuel using two different processes, mining and steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Oil sands can only be mined if they are no more than 350 feet below the surface. If the sands are deeper than that in situ SAGD is used to exploit the resource. 

The trip included site visits to Suncor’s Millennium Mine and ConocoPhillips’ Surmont SAGD facility outside of the boomtown of Fort McMurray. The oil sands underlay some 55,000 square miles of Alberta and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, of which 170 billion or so are commercially exploitable using current technologies. Of the 9 million barrels of crude oil per day that the U.S. imports, 2 million come from Canada. Alberta oil sands yield 1.5 million barrels per day, of which 60 percent is exported to the U.S. Production is projected to reach 3.5 million barrel per day by 2025.

Day One: The Millennium Oil Sands Mine

Our crew of flacks and hacks hop on a bus at 8 a.m. from our motel to travel to the Suncor mining facilities about 20 miles north of Fort McMurray. The highway is crammed with pickup trucks flying red warning flags and diesel trucks carrying all manner of equipment and material to the mine and extraction facilities. Each of us is provided personal protective equipment consisting of bright blue overalls, boots, gloves, goggles, and green hard hats. As it turns out, whenever our group went indoors anywhere during the next two days, we were treated to an extensive safety lecture and told at which well-marked locations we were to muster in case of an emergency.

Dressed in our protective finery, the bus takes our group past vast piles of gray sand to an overlook above the Millennium mine pit. As we watch enormous Cat 797B and Komatsu 930e trucks scurry around the pit, our tour guide Anne Marie Toutant, the vice president of mine operations at the Millennium mine, tells us we that it takes 2 tons of oil sands to produce about one barrel of synthetic oil. Toutant brings out a plastic bucket of sticky oil sands for us to handle. I grabbed a sample and wrapped it in a plastic bag to take home. It's sitting on my desk now. 

To open the mine, the operators first remove and dry the muskeg, the pervasive waterlogged acidic deposits of decayed vegetation which are typically 6 to 30 feet deep throughout Canada’s boreal forest region. The muskeg is set aside for later use in reclaiming the mine site. Next the overburden is removed so that gigantic shovels can get access to the oil sands deposits that are about 150 feet deep themselves. The mine operates 24/7 with colossal trucks carrying 1,600 loads at about 400 tons each to the extraction facilities. At the same time, some 2,000 loads of overburden are being returned to the worked out portions of the mine as part of the ongoing reclamation process.

The oil sands are delivered at a rate of one 400 ton truck load per minute to the hoppers at crushing facilities which remove any rocks or other debris over 2 inches in diameter. The process must remain continuous so the plant maintains a backup supply of oil sands that would last 15 minutes in the event that the constant stream of truck deliveries is somehow interrupted. The oil sands, mixed with water heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and air, flow to the separation cells at the extraction plant where bitumen froth floats to the top and sand and fine tailings drop to the bottom. Peering in a small window in the side of the separation cells clearly shows the sharp demarcation line between the black bitumen and the light tan tailings. The bitumen, which is too thick to flow by itself, is mixed with naphtha as a diluent and piped over to the refinery across the Athabasca River where it is upgraded into synthetic crude oil. The separation processing from beginning to end takes just 12 minutes and eventually recovers 96 percent of the bitumen in the oil sands. It costs about $38 to make a barrel of synthetic crude. The costs for producing a barrel out of a new oil sands mine would be nearer to $70. 

The tailings, which consist of sand and what are called mature fine tailings, have been traditionally deposited into tailings ponds where they settle out. Mature fine tailings are the big problem for oil sands extraction. They consist of a gel-like suspension of very fine clay, which for chemical reasons refuses to solidify in less than 30 years. Consequently, oil sands mines are surrounded by vast tailings ponds. In the case of the Suncor facility, until recently, there were seven tailings ponds. 

The ponds shimmer with a oily sheen since not all bitumen can be extracted from the sands. This poses a hazard to waterfowl that alight on the ponds. The companies erect blaze orange scarecrows in the ponds and fire random blasts from propane cannons to frighten birds away. One Suncor reclamation biologist, Lelaynia Cox later said that the company is planning to install radar that would trigger propane cannon blasts to startle birds when it detected them near the ponds.

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  • ||

    They would, instead, see the pit as a deep wound in the earth, amounting almost to a desecration.


    rAPE?
  • STEVE SMITH||

    NO, RAPE!

  • ||

    RAPe?

  • STEVE SMITH||

    DO NOT TEASE STEVE SMITH

  • Sacre Bleu||

    http://oilsandstruth.org/
    SHUT DOWN THE OIL SANDS

  • ||

    Because electricity comes from the socket and cars run on unicorn farts. Why on earth would we need oil?

    And besides that, those crazy Canucks will be sending things like hockey players and good doughnut shops to America with that money we give them. Better to buy our oil from places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. We know they would never do anything bad with that money.

  • Realist||

    Here we agree.

  • Tony||

    How about we stop licking the boots of the corporate status quo and find energy sources that won't run out? If you think we can still use oil but not deal with Middle Eastern theocracies you are delusional.

  • Edwin||

    it's not the corporate status quo, it's basic physics, Tony. If you don't like it, you could kill yourself, 'cause that's the only way you'll get away from that reality.

    and FYI, between petroleum sources repeatedly being found and the oil sands, we're not going to run out.

  • Valkor||

    The sun is not a renewable resource. Energy management is a question of time frame. You're conflating energy supply and energy acquisition politics in your retort.

  • ||

    LOL

    So that site is saying that, if the US has sources of oil other than Venezuela, Iraq and Iran, that somehow makes "war for oil" with these countries MORE likely? That's idiotic on the face of it.

    Furthermore, unless I'm missing something, the US hasn't exactly gone to war against, in, around or about Venezuela. If anything, Iraq likes to threaten the US, not vice versa. And the US has not exactly taken Iraq's oil. The war there has cost the US a lot of money, and it doesn't seem that anyone has sent Iraq the bill or anything.

    Far be it from me to defend every act of the US over the past two-odd centuries, but this particular statement is stupid.

    "The mock oil produced primarily is consumed in the United States and helps to subsidize continued wars of aggression against other oil producing nations such as Iraq, Venezuela and Iran."

  • ||

    The mock oil produced primarily is consumed in the United States and helps to subsidize continued wars of aggression against other oil producing nations such as Iraq, Venezuela and Iran.

    Thanks for reading that drivel so we don't have to. What exactly is this "mock oil"?

  • ||

    It's not ideologically pure? I'm not sure I get the dislike for it not being "real" oil.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: John,

    Thanks for reading that drivel so we don't have to. What exactly is this "mock oil"?


    It's a model of the real thing.

  • CveeDub||

    You're right, the US hasn't EXACTLY done any of those things to Venezuela. However, they did financially support the coup d'état against Chavez in 2002 because he upped the price of oil to the US.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Source?

  • CveeDub||

    The US denied prior knowledge of the coup but there is plenty of information that says they knew about it months before hand

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/worl......venezuela

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12.....position;=

    It later came out that the people who ran, or were close to, the coup received funds from the US through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. To correct any possible confusion about my post, the US wasn't completely funding the coup but they did provide funding.

    nytimes.com/2002/04/25/international/americas/25VENE.html
    old.mediatransparency.org/recipientprofile.php?recipientID=251

  • Edwin||

    didn't Chavez try a coup himself a while ago before he was voted president?

    The guy's a loony thug, so fuck him and I don't give a shit what anybody does to him.

  • Realist||

    And the stupid fuck stole property belonging to American oil companies!

  • ||

    You're right, the US hasn't EXACTLY done any of those things to Venezuela. However, they did financially support the coup d'état against Chavez in 2002 because he upped the price of oil to the US.

    Whether Chubby Chavez likes it or not, he has to sell his goop to us. Nobody else in the world can refine such dirty, shitty, sulfur-laden oil. You never hear a quote for 'light sweet Orinoco' at the Chicago Merc because the shit doesn't exist. Its down there with tar sand-cracked oil in what-a-bitch it is to refine.

    Its also why - at least I'm pretty sure - Chubbs hasn't forged some deal with China for Venezuelan oil...the Chinese don't have the capacity to refine it. If anything, Citgo has funded the 'Bolivarian Revolution' thousand times more than Evil Dubya Shrub funded a coup. What laughable bullshit.

  • CveeDub||

    Totally

  • ||

    Sadly no: IIRC China is gearing up (or has done) refining capability for the VZ stuff. Never miss a trick, do they?

    Sadly 2: One could wish that if we had couped Chavez that he would have stayed couped. (What's this BS EO against assassinations anyway and how do we cancel it?)

  • ||

    LOL

    So that site is saying that, if the US has sources of oil other than Venezuela, Iraq and Iran, that somehow makes "war for oil" with these countries MORE likely? That's idiotic on the face of it.

    Furthermore, unless I'm missing something, the US hasn't exactly gone to war against, in, around or about Venezuela. If anything, Iraq likes to threaten the US, not vice versa. And the US has not exactly taken Iraq's oil. The war there has cost the US a lot of money, and it doesn't seem that anyone has sent Iraq the bill or anything.

    Far be it from me to defend every act of the US over the past two-odd centuries, but this particular statement is stupid.

    "The mock oil produced primarily is consumed in the United States and helps to subsidize continued wars of aggression against other oil producing nations such as Iraq, Venezuela and Iran."

  • ||

    Shut down this idiot ^

  • Sacre Bleu||

    http://www.911truth.org/
    I AM RETARDED

  • Common Sense||

    Yeah! While we're at it, stop oil production all together! Let Brazil be the bad guys and drill for oil in the gulf! We'll just buy it from them and be the good guys.

    Oh wait, that's already happening.

  • ||

    Hey Ron, that state of abject poverty you mentioned sounds interesting. We'd like to hear more.

  • ||

    I don't no whether Ron is the luckiest reporter alive or the laziest. Maybe both?

  • ||

    *know

  • Old Mexican||

    They allege that producing oil sands synthetic crude releases far more [sic] greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than does conventional oil. They also claim that the pipeline could burst, endangering surface water and aquifers.


    "Ok, we just don't like oil, m'kay?"

  • ||

    Well, we don't like YOU using oil. But it's OK when it jets us over to Switzerland or Bali.

  • ||

    As long as you buy carbon offsets from me, it's all good.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If you don't relieve Gaia of her milk she aches.

  • ||

    +1000

  • Old Mexican||

    LOL!

  • juris imprudent||

    Oh man, and you don't want to be around when the pustules erupt.

  • Sacre Bleu||

    Gender impacts are often completely ignored within the hollow social impact assessments often conducted in the modern era. Oil patches and natural gas operations are overwhelmingly operated by young men who naturally go into small towns nearby after weeks in the bush. Alcohol and/or drug fuelled violence and rape often increase in communities dealing with such an influx, as do drug use, alcoholism and sexual exploitation. The effect on the community leads to further social breakdown and often violence against elders—especially after the “rush” of initial construction is over and the spike in money is gone, but the torn up earth is still there, along with fatherless children in many cases. The higher the rate in inequality and alienation during a "boom" cycle, the higher the levels of gender-biased impacts. The plans for the tar sands are the single largest project, and therefore "boom" based "collateral damage" could easily match anything seen before.
    http://oilsandstruth.org/topics/gender

  • Devil Inchoate||

    Oops, thought you were spoofing.

  • ||

    So not drilling for oil at all and both not getting the value of the oil and having those young men be unemployed is the better solution.

    That may be the dumbest post ever put on Hit and Run by a poster not named White Indian.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: John,

    That may be the dumbest post ever put on Hit and Run by a poster not named White Indian.


    And that is saying a lot!

  • White Indian||

    wHATEver!

  • ||

    <golf clap>

    Awesome. What do you do for an encore?

  • juris imprudent||

    CHEM TRAILS!!1!

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Sacre Bleu,

    Gender impacts are often completely ignored within the hollow social impact assessments often conducted in the modern era.


    I remember Mexican politicians who spoke in the same manner...

    ... arcanely, to be more succinct. They were incapable of making sense either.

  • wayne||

    I sure am glad our red-blooded American politicians are the very model of clear thinking!

  • ||

    It's in Canada. They're nice people.

    Besides, have you ever been a single woman in a town in the middle of nowhere with no single men around? I doubt they think it's a bad thing when a bunch of well-paid young men come to town and start buying drinks for them.

  • Realist||

    "It's in Canada. They're nice people."
    And they have a AAA+ rating

  • ||

    So we should probably shut down all industry and business where men work, because that might bring them into contact with women, whom they will summarily rape.

    Good idea.

  • ||

    Young men idled are always safer for women than gainfully employed ones. Everyone knows that!

    Like look in London, or Philly, or Gaza...gender utopias all!

  • ||

    or Philadelphia

  • Sacre Bleu||

    These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on. The parents and the public have been let down by both sides. The government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner. I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get around the negotiation table and stop it happening again.
    http://doctorvee.co.uk/ed-milibot/

  • ||

    So, by this reasoning, Alberta is a less safe place than Philly? Again, what laughably stupid bullshit.

  • Walter Sobchak||

    As the NYT would write: Oil mining a plague on humanity; women, minorities hardest hit.

  • Snowbee||

    The entire concept is so insipid that they were nice enough to post it twice on their site just so we can't be tricking into thinking we imagined it.

  • Snowbee||

    ^tricked! A typo on the internet, I'm done for!

    /seppuku

  • Sacre Bleu||

    Tar party: The Koch brothers come to Canada to protect their tar sands interests
    http://rabble.ca/news/2011/03/.....-interests

  • Devil Inchoate||

    Oh, this guy is serious. I thought he was mocking that site. It is eminently mockable.

  • Sacre Bleu||

    Well, I am retarded.

  • Sacre Bleu||

    Tar party: The Koch brothers come to Canada to protect their tar sands interests
    http://rabble.ca/news/2011/03/.....-interests

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "How to balance U.S. energy security versus concerns about greenhouse gas emissons?"

    That's easy - there's nothing to balance since none of the eco-socialists wackos has ever been the least bit capable of actually proving that man-made global warming exists at all.

    All of their shrill squealing about it came be summarily dismissed out of hand and move full speed ahead using the oil sands.

  • jacob||

    Can we get back to fracking for oil in shale. Notice how the enviro whackos dislike all forms of energy once they become economically viable.

    Unicorn farts contain CO2, but you can smell the rainbow

  • ||

    "Unicorn farts contain CO2, but you can smell the rainbow"

    I've never smelled a unicorn fart, but I HAVE put my face into a horse's ass to get an idea of what a unicorn fart MIGHT smell like!

  • Michael Ejercito||

    What happened to the fifty million climate refugees ?

    As Jack Marshall pointed out

    The UNEP didn’t mention [the prediction that global warming would create 50 million climate refugees by 2010.], and of course the global warming-hyping media didn’t mention it, and the web page content was quietly removed without comment. Embarrassingly enough, an intrepid reporter and climate change skeptic named Anthony Watts found the deleted pages on Google Cache.

    And guess what? The UNEP, having failed to erase the history of its bad prediction, neatly reissued the same projection, pushing it ahead to 2020! Then, the media dutifully publicized this frightening “scientific prediction,” never mentioning that the previous identical projection was a bust….because, you see, that would make us less likely to be properly alarmed.
  • NotSure||

    Interesting read. I think there is an instinctive rejection all that is oil sands from many people. It is a problem for their peak oil theory and the coming end of the world belief.

  • Old Mexican||

    The tailings, which consist of sand and what are called mature fine tailings, have been traditionally deposited into tailings ponds where they settle out. Mature fine tailings are the big problem for oil sands extraction. They consist of a gel-like suspension of very fine clay, which for chemical reasons refuses to solidify in less than 30 years. Consequently, oil sands mines are surrounded by vast tailings ponds. In the case of the Suncor facility, until recently, there were seven tailings ponds.


    Toiling for tailings.

  • Lowdog||

    Seems like they are going to great lengths to protect the areas they are mining. That's what comes with progress.

    Now I do know there are some studies that address the adverse effect that noise from indstrial production (and the cannons probably don't help) has on breeding birds, but damn, you can't do much more than they seem to be doing to mitigate environmental impacts. Even reclaiming land? Awesome!

    This is the kind of thing that environmentalists should applaud, but no, they really just want people to be poor and die, it seems.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Lowdog,

    This is the kind of thing that environmentalists should applaud, but no, they really just want people to be poor and die, it seems.


    Well, most environmentalists are not conservationist, [the true environmentalists] they're actually Marxists. They really want socialism and couldn't care less about the environment.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Well, most environmentalists are not conservationist, [the true environmentalists] they're actually Marxists. They really want socialism and couldn't care less about the environment."

    And that's why they're called watermellons.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    Mr. Bleu's statements and others of his/her ilk further support my thesis that at a goodly portion of the environmentalist movement is driven by aesthetics.

  • Menth||

    Aesthetics? I am interested in hearing your theory.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I can't speak for 35N, but he/she might be referring to some of their arguments like the ones they make against strip mining. "Destroyed the landscape", etc. etc.

  • ||

    From R. Bailey's 7/21/2011 post on "Anti-biotech Superstition..." The superstitions are being purveyed by the quacks and shamans who infest leading environmentalist groups.

    Sacre Bleu! Could this be you?

  • ||

    Sacre Bleu sez: "Oil patches and natural gas operations are overwhelmingly operated by young men who naturally go into small towns nearby after weeks in the bush. Alcohol and/or drug fuelled violence and rape often increase in communities dealing with such an influx, as do drug use, alcoholism and sexual exploitation."

    "Sounds like Spring Break to me. Y'all come on down!" Florida Tourist Bureau.

  • wayne||

    ""Oil patches and natural gas operations are overwhelmingly operated by young men who naturally go into small towns nearby after weeks in the bush."

    They spend weeks out in the bush and then come into town to finnagle their way into the bush. They must like bush.

  • Realist||

    "Can I explain myself to those who see mining oil sands as a moral offense?"
    No libs are too stupid.
    Besides doesn't that shit cause AGW???

  • Sacre Bleu||

    Nevertheless, a case of semigrammaticalness of a different sort is to be regarded as problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. Presumably, the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition is not quite equivalent to the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. Suppose, for instance, that a subset of English sentences interesting on quite independent grounds appears to correlate rather closely with the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol. We will bring evidence in favor of the following thesis: a descriptively adequate grammar is, apparently, determined by a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar. Notice, incidentally, that the fundamental error of regarding functional notions as categorial does not affect the structure of a stipulation to place the constructions into these various categories.
    http://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl

  • A Strange Bird||

    I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!

  • ||

    When you quote somebody else in your post, go like "this" around it - at least please.

    And since that doesn't make any relative sense:

    "Suppose that there exists embedded information such that we can easily harness unstable communication. Similarly, we postulate that relational configurations can prevent wide-area networks without needing to control the emulation of multicast solutions. We postulate that rasterization and the World Wide Web are generally incompatible. This may or may not actually hold in reality. Further, we show the schematic used by GodGlama in Figure 1. We use our previously evaluated results as a basis for all of these assumptions. This seems to hold in most cases. "

    From 3.2 of:

    http://apps.pdos.lcs.mit.edu/s.....omsky.html

  • ||

    Dude makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

    www.real-anonymity.us.tc

  • ||

    Ronald, if I knew you were coming to fort mac I would have taken you for the aerial tour. I am always taking up greenpeace or david suzuki. if you are still in fort mac give me a shout. i will take you up.

  • ||

    Nice.

  • some guy||

    The pond site reclaimed measures just over a square mile.

    Where I come from that ain't a pond. That's a lake.

  • Snowbee||

    Haha, I moved from Maine to Texas and was overwhelmed with laughter upon finding out what they consider "lakes" down here. Sort of the opposite situation to your own.

  • ||

    We are getting real tired of all these birds around the house. We strongly urge more windmills to help eliminate this bird problem.

    then we can also use these pits to bury all the Prius batteries filled with heavy lithium and cadmium metals and other noxious chemicals.

  • ||

    "Dressed in our protective finery, the bus...."
    Really?

  • ||

    That would be, "sepAration cell".
    Just to be a little contrary, we have to admit that the 'viros have done some good here; does anyone think the oil cos. would have reclaimed anything, without their pressure? But they've overstepped by opposing the pipeline to the Texas refineries.If the oil isn't piped south to the U.S., it'll be shipped west to the Pacific and China. In either case, the sands will still be mined. It's better to complete a largely existing pipeline, than to build a new western line, and use lots of diesel in Pacific tankers moving the oil to the Far East.

  • ||

    "does anyone think the oil cos. would have reclaimed anything, without their pressure?"

    The oil companies were reclaiming the land long before the viros started screaming.

  • Snowbee||

    "If the oil isn't piped south to the U.S., it'll be shipped west to the Pacific and China. In either case, the sands will still be mined."

    Whoa, guy, that makes waaaaay too much sense for the enviros to understand. You may want to pepper that with a bit more hyperbole and supposition.

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u man

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

  • ||

    Energy cost of extraction, chemical/tailing clean up? To produce said chemicals? To transport it and blow off those cannons?
    Infrastructure cost in dollars/energy; whether products recoup them; is it useful afterwards or will, like my hometown, turn into a rusting, antiquated hulk?
    You do know it has to be cleaned up, right? Is 'naptha' piped over rivers flammable, or just the pond sheen?
    Net gain or loss? I think probably the latter.
    This is just starters. Smack-on the tributary of a major city's water supply is a good 20 feet of spontaneously reacting, river-bottom slag. You can't dredge, or evacuate 20 million people. Weirdly shit for PhD's to ponder, biding its time for major weather events. Which happen every so often, regardless of whether you in particular subscribe to notions of climate change.
    Yeah hey dude, AWESOME. It's called non-renewable for a reason. But who cares about some shitty geese, or your grandchildren, right?
    Dude, for libertarians you're pretty Keynsian at that. 'In the long run, we're all dead...'

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