A heated argument is brewing between geologist Herbert (“Billy”) Sukhu and Valerie Stoute, professor of environmental and postgraduate studies and research at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) over which one has the best approach to monetising the estimated 1.45 billion barrels of 37.5° API oil locked up in tar sands in south Trinidad. 

Mr. Sukhu claims to be the person who brought the possibilities of tar (or oil) sands development to the notice of the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, the press and the country in general, dubbing it the “third wave” of energy development in the country. 

He even identified the best and most cost effective technology for such monetisation – “a clean retorting process which can extract the entire organic fraction from the tar sands ore and simultaneously perform primary upgrading of bitumen to produce a pumpable distillate.” 

Sukhu has rejected the five other commercial processes initially used in Alberta, Canada, where tar sands development is currently underway, which are the Clark Hot Water Process (CHWP), Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), the Cyclic Steam Stimulation Process (CSS), Solvent Processes (SP) and Heel and Toe Injection Systems (HTIS). 

His reasoning: “Trinidad and Tobago is a small island developing state with critical land mass in comparison to Canada and the province of Alberta and implementation of these processes should not be entertained. Just look at what is happening with our ageing conventional sector with significant environmental breaches that still cannot be resolved.” 

The noted geologist believes that at least 10.9 million barrels of synthetic crude could be delivered by his method each year for a minimum of 25 years, which could even be raised to 18.25 or possibly 36.50 million barrels in due course. 

“Future production from these resources will definitely enhance the country’s crude oil supply position, as well as export earnings.” He notes that “Trinidad and Tobago’s production of crude oil has been declining precipitously. The long-standing conventional reserves, particularly those in the Gulf of Paria and other fields, have failed to live up to expectations. The country cannot wait on new finds from exploratory drilling in order to reverse this fall.” 

However, Prof. Stoute challenges this cosy view and insists that “the detailed (doctoral) rigorous study of the feasibility of exploiting tar sands gave a geostatistical estimate of about 20% compared with what Mr. Sukhu may be leading people to believe.” 

Furthermore, she adds, “one has to use a conversion factor before using any estimate because 100% extraction and conversion to heavy oil will never be obtained.” 

Prof. Stoute also takes Sukhu to task on his figure of US$20 a barrel for profitable extraction, insisting that this should be a minimum of US$90 a barrel. “At US$47 a barrel (where oil is roughly hovering today) exploitation is a losing proposition, according to our studies.” 

Those studies were primarily conducted by Dr. Godfrey Ransome for his PhD in petroleum engineering and he found that the environmental impact – of which Sukhu has made light – was significant. “Tar sands exploitation in any country attracts environmentalists, most of whom are very vocal,” Prof. Stoute points out. 

She insists that Sukhu has not been “a lone voice” on tar sands development – “just the loudest. His is also not the most authoritative. Dr. Ransome’s conclusions are evidencebased.” 

Prof. Stoute stresses that she had supervised Dr. Ransome’s work on tar sands and has also examined Sukhu’s findings. 

She adds, pointedly: “Mr. Sukhu has not yet obtained a doctorate from UTT – at least not up to 2015.”