The Immense Alberta Oil Sands Project: A Definitive Examination
“The Alberta Oil Sands is the largest energy project on the planet, lying beneath 140,200 square kilometers of northern Alberta forest, an area almost as large as the state of Florida. This area represents 21% of Alberta and 37% of Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region. As of mid-2009, there were approximately 5,012 oil sands (mineral rights) agreements with the Province and 91 active Oil Sands projects. Oil Sands development is turning once pristine stretches of forest into desolate landscapes. ” Michelle Mech
The scale of the Alberta Tar/Oil Sands project absolutely boggles the mind. Last Spring Michelle Mech released a comprehensive report on the Tar Sands which got far too little attention. Among other things, Mech’s report estimates that total production-related GHG emissions could be almost double the government’s figure for the Tar Sands emissions impact for 2008.
Based on the Alberta government’s 41.9 Mt GHG emissions for 2009 for the Tar Sands, extrapolating Mech’s report’s 2008 figures to 2009, results in the same conclusion. Some of the Tar Sands-related emissions in her report occur in the U.S., but isolating those that only occur in Canada and adding them to the 41.9 Mt figure would bring the Tar Sands share of Canada’s emissions to 9% for 2009, assuming the government utilized the same criteria to calculate emissions for both 2008 and 2009.”
With the Keystone Pipeline decision about to be taken in Washington D.C. it seems an appropriate moment to release a slightly updated version of Mech’s report. Further, regardless of what decision President Obama makes the Tar Sands are not going to go away, so this report is an appropriate foundational piece for West Coast Climate Equity’s coverage of the Alberta Tar Sands Project in particular, and oil extraction in general.
The bottom line is that this document is a “must have” for everyone working on the Tar Sands issue. Reproduced below is the Summary and the Table of Contents.
Download/See the Full Report Here
.On the revisions: “One of the revisions I made to the report one was to isolate Canada’s additional emissions in my subsection on actual production-related emissions to show that of the additional (to the NIR figure) production-related emissions I calculated, 60% occurred in Canada. This means that the 5% of Canada’s emissions for 2008 was actually 8%..
By Michelle Mech
March, 2011 revised Oct 2011
A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands
Understanding the Environmental and Human Impacts, Export Implications, and Political, Economic, and Industry Influences
ABOUT THIS REPORT
Just as an oil slick can spread far from its source, the implications of Oil Sands production have far reaching effects. Many people only read or hear about isolated aspects of these implications. Media stories often provide only a ‘window’ of information on one specific event and detailed reports commonly center around one particular facet.
This paper brings together major points from a vast selection of reports, studies and
research papers, books, documentaries, articles, and fact sheets relating to the Alberta Oil Sands. It is not inclusive. The objective of this document is to present sufficient information on the primary factors and repercussions involved with Oil Sands production and export so as to provide the reader with an overall picture of the scope and implications of Oil Sands current production and potential future development, without perusing vast volumes of publications.
The content presents both basic facts, and those that would supplement a general knowledge base of the Oil Sands and this document can be utilized wholly or in part, to gain or complement a perspective of one or more particular aspect(s) associated with the Oil Sands. The substantial range of Oil Sands-related topics is covered in brevity in the summary.
This paper discusses environmental, resource, and health concerns, reclamation, viable alternatives, crude oil pipelines, and carbon capture and storage. It also provides some insight into the political and economic factors that have influenced Oil Sands development and, with some variance, continue to do so; furnishes a sampling of government inadequacies and ignored findings; and includes subjects not often in the forefront, such as the exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers and the lives of mobile workers.
Note: In 1995 the Alberta Tar Sands were framed as a “national treasure” and the term “oil sands” was selected as the new, cleaner sounding brand name. Both names continue to be used interchangeably.
The author would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this report:
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, and
Guy Dauncey, President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, for their review, patience, and invaluable input;
Dr. Colin Campbell, Science Advisor, Sierra Club BC, for his insightful feedback and comments;
Dr. David Keith, Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment and Professor at the University of Calgary, for his review and most helpful suggestions pertaining to the subsection ‘Accounting of Oil Sands production-related GHG emissions’.
The information included in this report, often multiple sourced for verification, is dependent on the references utilized, and any conclusions drawn, though based on this information, are the opinion of the author.
For questions, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Alberta Oil Sands is the largest energy project on the planet, lying beneath 140,200 square kilometers of northern Alberta forest, an area almost as large as the state of Florida. This area represents 21% of Alberta and 37% of Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region.As of mid-2009, there were approximately 5,012 oil sands (mineral rights) agreements with the Province and 91 active Oil Sands projects.
While only 686 square kilometers of the boreal forest have so far been disturbed by Oil Sands mining, as of mid-2010, 85,000 square kilometers of land had been leased out to companies for extraction. The other 39% is still available for leasing. Even the currently developed portion of the Oil Sands region is already experiencing severe fragmentation effects on the ecology of the boreal forest. And, of the area disturbed, over 25% is covered by toxic liquid tailings on long-term storage behind dikes. The UN’s senior advisor on water, Maude Barlow, said after touring the Alberta Oil Sands:“We were devastated by what we saw and smelled and experienced. The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned and giant tailing ponds line the Athabasca River.”
As devastating as the Oil Sands already are, it is the prospect of the potential magnitude of future development that will exponentially reap disastrous and irreversible levels of environmental destruction. Oil Sands production is expected to triple by 2030. As Avatar film director James Cameron recently stated, “The capacity for an ecological disaster here on an unprecedented scale is possible.”
The first part of this paper presents the environmental and human repercussions of Oil Sands development, related government inadequacies, and viable alternatives. The second part provides information on crude oil pipelines, carbon capture and storage, and political, economic, and industry influences. The paper concludes with discussion of low carbon performance, global warming, and growing concern about increased oil sands development and global exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels.
PART 1: Environmental and human impacts, government inadequacies, viable alternatives
Natural gas consumption. Oil sands production is both energy and water intensive. Natural gas consumption for the production of one barrel of Oil Sands crude oil is between 700 and 1700 cubic feet, enough to heat the average Canadian home for 2.5 to six days. Under the anticipated expansion in Oil Sands production, not only could the Oil Sands project severely compromise Canada’s natural gas supplies, but Canadian natural gas may also be inadequate to supply the energy needs of the Oil Sands. Turning to unconventional sources would substantially increase the intensity and total amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.
Water consumption. For mining operations, new water consumption per barrel of synthetic crude oil is 2.5 to 4.5 barrels. This comes primarily from the Athabasca River, which has seen a decline in average flows due to climate warming. There are concerns that the Oil Sands industry is already overtaxing the River and detrimentally affecting the First Nations and the aquatic life inhabiting the region. In situ extraction operations utilize significant amounts of groundwater, approximately one barrel per barrel of bitumen produced and knowledge is lacking as to whether the aquifers in the Athabasca Oil Sands region can sustain the Oil Sands groundwater demands and losses. It is projected that water resources will not be able to meet anticipated Oil Sands production growth.
Greenhouse gas emissions. While Canada is only responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is in the top ten of the world’s GHG emitters and is the second highest of these countries on a per capita basis. The Alberta Oil Sands is Canada’s fastest growing source of GHG emissions. Under the Canadian government’s business-as-usual projections, Oil Sand emissions will reach 108 megatonnes (Mt) by 2020, growing to 12% of Canada’s emissions.
Industry average emissions for oil sands production and upgrading (well-to-pump) are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as carbon intensive as conventional crude produced in North America. The Oil Sands industry argues that oil sands-based fuels are only approximately 15% more carbon-intensive than conventional crude oil. However, their figures are based on a well-to-wheels measurement, where the full product life cycle is considered from production to the use of the fuel in a vehicle. Combustion accounts for the major portion of life cycle GHG emissions.
Production-related emissions. Canada’s National Inventory Report’s (NIR) total GHG emissions for ‘Oil Sands – Mining, In situ, Upgrading’ is often loosely interpreted by the media and the public as representing the total Oil Sands emissions produced in the process of extracting and converting bitumen into an end use fuel. However, this figure, 37.2 Mt for 2008, does not take into account several GHG emission sources that are directly or indirectly related to Oil Sands processing prior to combustion. The NIR is only responsible for reporting GHG emissions that occur in Canada. It does not reflect emissions associated with upstream land use or the downstream upgrading and refining that is done outside of Canada. Additionally, the NIR’s reporting structure does not categorize as part of Oil Sands emissions, the emissions from production of the natural gas that is utilized in Oil Sands production or the refining of synthetic crude oil from the Oil Sands that is done at various Canadian refineries.
This paper provides an accounting of these production-related emissions. Though the amounts are averaged estimates, they show that taking all well-to-pump Oil Sands emissions into account could bring the total pre-combustion GHG emissions for Oil Sands oil to approximately double the widely-referenced NIR figure.
Tailings ponds.Tailings ponds now cover more than 170 square kilometers, an area one and a half times the size of the city of Vancouver, and are growing, with liquid tailings rapidly expanding by 200 million litres every day. It is estimated that 2000 to 2500 litresof total tailings material is produced on a per barrel basis. As result, there are a total of 5.5 trillion litres of impounded tailings on the Oil Sands landscape.Of this, mature fine tailing, the bottom layers of clays, fine sand, water and bitumen, comprise 840 billion litres. The tailings ponds are now leaking4 billion litres per year (11 million litres a day) of contaminated water into the environment and, should proposed projects go ahead, this volume could reach 25 billion litres a year within a decade.
Air pollutants. Oil Sands operations also release large volumes of pollutants into the air. These pollutants, in high doses, have been linked to respiratory illness, heart disease, emphysema, bronchitis, headaches, nausea, spontaneous abortion, and impaired neurological function. Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory emissions data indicates all 13 elements considered priority pollutants under the U.S. Environment Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act are being spewed into the atmosphere by the Oil Sands industry in increasing amounts.
Reclamation.Though some breakthroughs in reclamation have been make, they are small in comparison to the pace and scale of disturbance from Oil Sands mines. As well, no tailings lakes have ever been successfully reclaimed and there is no demonstrated effective long-term way to deal with liquid tailings. Nor has the reclamation of wetlands or peatlands in the Athabasca Boreal region ever been demonstrated, and peatlands contain seven times more carbon than normal boreal forest soils.
In situ versus mining. Proponents of in situ development increasingly assert that it has considerably lower environmental impacts than mine-based production. However, when land fragmentation is considered, the in situ land area influence is greater than mining. As well, in situ processes utilize over twice as much natural gas as mine-based processing. As a result, in situ operations prior to bitumen upgrading generate 2 to 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas per barrel of bitumen as mining.
Aquatic life. Oil Sands pollution is having an evident effect on regional aquatic life. An August 2010 study led by Erin Kelly and David Schindler of the University of Alberta found that levels of the pollutants cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life in melted snow or water collected near or downstream from oilsands mining. Schindler said, “Embryos of fish exposed to oilsands’ water and sediment have very high rates of mortality, and among the survivors, there are very high rates of deformities.”
Land animals. The industrial development of the Oil Sands and the resulting forest fragmentation is already affecting the boreal ecosystem and could lead to irreversible ecological damage and loss of biodiversity. Many species of land animals are already in decline and Environment Canada has concluded that all woodland caribou herds would likely be lost from northeastern Alberta, as a result of cumulative disturbances within their ranges. Thousands of acres of diverse bird habitats have been destroyed and the Oil Sands belt is on the migratory route of North American ducks and other waterfowl. A cumulative impact study projects that over the next 30 to 50 years, millions of birds could be lost due to loss of breeding and staging areas, and from birds landing in tailing ponds of waste that look like real bodies of water.
Impacts on First Nations people. Downstream of the Oil Sands, Aboriginal people are experiencing an increase in respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems and rare cancers suspected to be caused by toxic substances leaching downstream from Oil sands production. Oil present in local watersheds has led to arsenic contamination of moose meat, a dietary staple of local First Nations people, of up to 33 times acceptable levels. Game animals in the area are being found with tumours and mutations. Toxic substances and carcinogens have been found in fish, waterfowl, beavers, moose and muskrat. 6-7% of the fish caught at Fort Chipewyan, located on the northwestern tip of Lake Athabasca, have skin or lip carcinomas and elevated mercury levels in the fish inhibit human consumption. Drinking water has been contaminated. Water withdrawals from the Athabasca River and the loss of wildlife are adversely affecting the First Nations’ traditional way of life.
First Nations treaties. The impact of the Oil Sands on the region’s First Nations is in violation of Treaties 6 and 8, which were signed by First Nations peoples in 1876 and 1899 and several First Nations groups have launched legal actions. The treaties surrendered to the federal government over one million square kilometers of what is now central and northern Alberta as well as adjoining areas of British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories in return for the guarantee that the First Nations would retain their hunting, trapping, and fishing rights in support of sustaining their traditional livelihood, in perpetuity. These rights were affirmed by the Constitution Act of 1982. “We were assured that our way of life would not be changed and that it would be protected,” state Chief Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Chief Roxanne Marcel, Mikisew Cree First Nation.
Lack of government oversight and action. Since 2001, Canada has ranked second to last in the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) countries on its environmental performance, mainly due to poor environmental policies. This paper discusses these inadequacies in the areas of water, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental assessment and monitoring.
Water issues. In Canada, there is no national strategy to address urgent water issues, no federal leadership to conserve and protect our water, and Canada does not have legally enforceable drinking water standards. The Federal Water Policy is more than 30 years old. The last comprehensive assessment of Canada’s groundwater resources was published in 1967.
Energy resources. Canada has failed to exercise any fiscal accountability over its non-renewable oil wealth. It has no sovereign fund and has saved no wealth to date. Canada does not have a strategic petroleum reserve and despite its abundance of oil, Canada is the most vulnerable member of the International Energy Agency to short-term shocks. A major percentage of Oil Sands crude oil is exported to the U.S. and Canada is still buying oil from the Middle East and from North Sea countries. Canada does not have a national energy strategy, which is currently being called for by the oil and gas industry, the renewable energy industry, the business community, and environmentalists. Canada has no policies to enable large-scale renewable-energy adoption and has cut funding for renewable power development.
Emissions reduction. Canada’s GHG emissions in 2008were 24% higher than in 1990 and 30% higher than the country’s KYOTO commitments. While many other industrialized countries have committed to emissions reductions of 20 to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, the Canadian government’s current target – 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – translates to 2.5% above 1990 levels. Even achieving this low target is dubious as the government has predicted no net reduction in GHG emissions from federal action up to 2012 and Canadian governments haven’t yet agreed on an outline for a national approach to reducing greenhouse gases. No federal government measures for carbon pricing have yet been adopted and Canada does not have alowcarbon growth plan. Out of 57 countries that together are responsible for over 90% of global energy-related CO2, Canada ranks 2nd last in climate protection.
Assessment and monitoring. Canada has one of the worst records of pollution enforcement of any industrial nation. Its air quality objectives have not changed since the 1970′s. The OECD has cited Canada as having one of the worst records for air emissions, specifically particulate matter and ground level ozone. Canada does not have a Fisheries Act compliance strategy for the industries and activities that must comply with the Act’s prohibition requirement against the deposit of harmful substances in water frequented by fish. And neither the federal nor the provincial government has ever studied the effects of reduced flow rates on the Athabasca River and the 31 species of fish that populate it.
Living and working conditions. The Oil Sands carries the image of bountiful, high-paying jobs. Yet the lives of mobile workers, away from their families for long stretches of time, the majority of them living in work camps, is far from ideal and many suffer from vulnerability and stress, some even turning to hard drugs or alcohol as an escape. Temporary foreign workers, who are brought in to fill Canadian labour shortages (60,000 in Alberta in 2010) often experience exploitation, abuse, racial discrimination, and lack of rights. Even community members employed in jobs outside the Oil Sands are finding the ‘boom town’ growth of Fort McMurray a strain.
Viable alternatives. There are viable alternatives to continued development of the Oil Sands in providing jobs and also in supplying energy. According to analysts from the Center for American Progress, relative to spending on fossil fuels, clean-energy investments create 2.6 to 3.6 times more jobs for people, depending on their education level. According to Greenpeace projections, low-impact renewable energy can supply 96% of electricity and 92% of Canada’s total heating needs by 2050, and Canadians could save about $135 per person a year on their energy bills over the next 40 years by reducing energy use and switching away from increasingly costly fossil fuels.
Part 2: Pipelines, CCS, and politics
Crude oil pipelines. A massive web of pipelines is already involved in the transfer of bitumen blends and crude oil, and several expansions have been proposed. The Keystone XL expansion alone would more than double the crude oil pipeline capacity of 2009. Two of the proposed expansions would result in additional transfer of Oil Sands crude by oil tanker. Currently, the Enbridge pipeline proposal is in the forefront of much debate and concern, somewhat overshadowing the facts that Oil Sands crude is already being transported by tanker out of Vancouver and there are plans to increase this traffic.
There are major environmental concerns relating to both pipeline and tanker transportation of bitumen blends and crude oil. Pipeline construction and operation can cause damage to soils, surface and groundwater, air quality, vegetation, wildlife, and fish populations. Pipeline spills can lead to direct loss of various species as a result of contaminated food intake, reduced respiratory functions, or ingestion of oily water. Oil spills from tankers can have numerous adverse effects including shoreline contamination, catastrophic species loss, ocean sediment contamination, water quality deterioration, commercial fishing industry closures, and, in many areas, impacts on tourism and traditional Aboriginal culture.
Carbon Capture and Storage. The Alberta Oil Sands stand as the single greatest obstacle to Canada meeting its global climate change responsibilities and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), is being lauded as the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the Oil Sands and other fossil fuel production.
The Canadian and Alberta governments are defending the continuance and further development of the Alberta Oil Sands by saying that CCS will collect carbon dioxide emissions from Oil Sands operations and make them environmentally and socially sustainable. The governments know that there are vast technological differences between CCS for coal and CCS for oil sands, the latter being so much more complex because of the number and diversity of emission sources and locations, and because their CO2 streams tend to be relatively small and diluted. Such is stated in a 2008 joint Canada and Alberta task force report: “Oil sands operations are very diverse and only a small portion of the carbon dioxide streams are currently amenable for carbon capture and storage.”
CCS technology is also expensive, increasing electricity costs by an estimated 30 to 80% even for coal power plants. As well, it is energy and water intensive, requiring an additional 10 to 40% of energy, and 23 to almost 100% more water at a time when the world is facing water shortages. Using CCS to further Oil Sands development mirrors the same lack of humane consideration as utilizing food for biofuel to power vehicles while the world is experiencing food shortages – something the Canadian government has also aggressively supported and even legislated, even if the result is minimal or even negative greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
There are additional concerns about the safety, capacity, and liability of storing carbon dioxide underground, and the expediency and extent of contributions that CCS can actually make to cutting global CO2 emissions.
There is also the dangerthat CCS has evolved into a justification and diversion for prolonging dependence on fossil fuels, assuaging public fears about resulting CO2 emissions and delaying efforts to aggressively convert to more cost-effective, renewable, low-energy systems. While the Canadian government is investing heavily in CCS research, it has cut program funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy. “Almost all of the money this government claims is climate change work is about getting more oil out of the ground,” said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada.
Fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Canadian and Alberta governments provided $2.84 billion to support oil production in 2008. This aid was received regardless of the companies’ profits or growth and regardless of the fact that the oil and gas industry is the most profitable of all Canadian industries. In 2009, the G-20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) made commitments to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. Yet Canada, as a member, has proposed no new plans for reducing its remaining subsidies. The G-20 reasoned, “Inefficient fossil fuel subsidies encourage wasteful consumption, distort markets, impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to deal with climate change.”
Political, Economic, and Industry Influences. There are numerous political and industry influences that strive to deny the scientific facts of global warming and promote increased Oil Sands production. For years, substantial lobbying has been done to shape legislation in industry’s favour and also to ensure that those industries benefit from the billions of dollars in government grants being issued for clean energy and emissions-reduction projects. Federal lobbyist records show that corporate oil executives have frequent access to the highest officials in Ottawa. Not only has Oil Sands production heavily influenced the Canadian government’s lack of action on global warming and fueled Canada’s undermining of progress in global negotiations on climate change, on behalf of Oil Sand development the Canadian government has also been crossing boundaries in attempts to stifle other countries’ efforts to support cleaner fuels.
Historically the United States has been a huge proponent for the development of the Oil Sands, striving to reduce its overseas oil imports and also investing in the Oil Sands. As well, the Oil Sands has attracted investors from Japan, Norway, France, South Korea, the Netherlands, Thailand, and China. Committed funds for current and proposed projects total $200 billion.
Unheeded recommendations from government reports. Reported concerns about Oil Sands development go back well over 30 years. As early as 1973, a series of reports for the Alberta Department of the Environment warned about the threat of dike failure, seepage and groundwater pollution from growing waste ponds. In 2007, Natural Resources Canada made several recommendations and concluded, “. . .it would be irresponsible to continue on a ‘business-as-usual’ course; a business-as-usual approach. . .is not sustainable; [and] it is time to begin the transition to a clean energy future”.
The number of reports and recommendations regarding the environmental repercussions of Oil Sands production is vast, yet they have done little to change the Alberta and federal governments’ approach to Oil Sands development. Even samples of deformed fish from Lake Athabasca and the widely publicized 2010 study conducted by internationally renowned water expert, Dr. David Schindler, and his team, which concluded that the Oil Sands industry is substantially increasing loadings of toxic priority pollutants to the Athabasca River and its tributaries, appear to have lead only to discussions on improved government monitoring.
Part 3: Closing points and information
Low-carbon performance. Canada has fallen far behind most other industrialized countries in emissions reduction, renewable energy technology, and overall low-carbon performance. As Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy says, “Most of our competitors. . .are all investing more and preparing their economies for the low-carbon transition”. By 2008, the UK and Germany had already reduced their GHG emissions by 19 and 22%, respectively. Germany and China have taken the lead on research and manufacturing of solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. And Pembina’s analysis found an 18:1 per capita ratio for stimulus spending between the U.S. and Canada on renewable energy programs for 2010. And in 2011, the U.S. proposes to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies worth $12 billion.
Global warming. The increasing exploitation of Canada‘s Oil Sands amounts to a massive investment – locking in a high carbon North American transportation system at the same time that Canada and the rest of the world need to urgently tackle climate change. There can be no energy security, or indeed any kind of lasting security, without a stable climate. The current lack of action on climate change mitigation is setting the world on a path to reach a projected rise in global temperature of 3.5°C over the next 25 years, meaning that governments worldwide will have failed in their pledge to hold global temperature below 2°C.
As a member of the G8 and G20, Canada has a significant role to play among industrialized countries in reaching adequate commitments to mitigate global warming. Yet the Canadian government has been in the forefront of stalling successful climate change negotiations,in large part to protect the continuance of Oil Sands development. By not taking substantive action on climate change and not addressing the repercussions of Oil Sands development, the Canadian government is not taking consequences for future generations into account.
Experts predict we could reach 4°C of warming as early as the 2060s. Among the potential catastrophes, a 4°C global temperature rise could result in: sea levels rising up to 2 metres by 2100; ocean ecosystems and food chains collapsing; swaths of southern Europe turning to desert; half of the world becoming uninhabitable; and 85% of the Amazon rainforest being killed off by 2100. “It doesn’t have to be this way. If politicians agree to cut emissions by 3% every year, the world can limit temperature rise to a ‘safe’ 2°C”, says the UK’s Met Office.
Growing concern about the Oil Sands. A recent report released by Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental and public interest organizations that studies challenges to sustainability, shows that the environmental and financial risks of producing oil in Canada’s Oil Sands region may be even greater than deepwater oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.
As the world’s attention reflects on the disastrous consequences of offshore drilling, it should also consider the risk of one of the large Oil Sands tailings ponds, held in check by barrage dams up to 100 metres high, breaching, especially in winter when it is impossible to clean up under the ice. Catastrophic amounts of toxic waste would flow into the Athabasca River, make their way into the Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River, and enter the Beaufort Sea. Dr. David Schindler has noted: “If any of these tailings ponds ever burst the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.”
The world may also forget about the Exxon Valdez if an oil spill from one of the tankers carrying Oil Sands crude fouls British Columbia’s waters and coastline. And the recent earthquake in Japan warrants serious reservation in regards to employing CCS and the related potential danger of seismic events unleashing deadly buried CO2.
Further exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel. Huge unconventional fuel reserves – extra heavy crude, oil sands, and oil shale – lie untapped across the globe. Canada is currently the only major centre of production. However, new deposits of oil sands and other unconventional oil have been discovered or are already being exploited in several other countries. If all 1.1 trillion barrels of probably extractable Canadian and U.S. unconventional oils were exploited within the next century, WWF estimates it would result in emissions of 980 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 – 183 Gt CO2 from the Oils Sands and 797 Gt CO2 from US shale oils – equating to an estimated increase in atmospheric CO2levels of between 49 and 65 parts per million (ppm), enough to likely tip CO2levels beyond the climate stabilization threshold of 450 ppm CO2 equivalent. Rather than leading the way on the path to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and reduce global warming, Canada is leading the way down the road of exploiting unconventional reserves and the use of the most GHG intensive fossil fuels.
Closing comments. Canadian governments and the Oil Sands industry argue in favour of further Oil Sands development, saying that on a global basis the GHG emissions and the environmental destruction of the Alberta Oil Sands are small. However, what this development represents is huge. The Alberta Oil Sands are impeding the enforcement of adequate environmental policies and emissions reduction within Canada and adversely influencing Canada’s role in global climate change initiatives. They are also setting the stage for further extraction and processing of unconventional fossil fuels on a worldwide scale, which would lead to substantive increases in GHG emissions from fossil fuels. The potential for increased exploitation of unconventional fuels is also providing a means for global governments and industry to perpetuate the heavy use of fossil fuels rather than seriously tackling the necessary conversion to renewable energy, low carbon transportation and energy supplies, and reductions in energy use.
Thus development of the Alberta Oil Sands stands as an icon representing a huge barrier to aggressive action on climate change, not only in Canada, but also globally. It exhibits the single-mindedness of corporations and governments in putting this industry in the way of achieving adequate measures to abate global warming and preserve integrity of life for current and future generations. Given the projected repercussions of climate change based on current emissions reduction commitments, only short-term thinking and maintaining local pollution, global warming, and loss of habitat as ‘externalities’ allow the ever-expanding Oil Sands project to continue.
“The more a nation becomes dependent on a single resource such as oil, the less democratic it becomes over time. Oil begins to make the decisions. You introduce these incredible political imbalances to the system that slowly and incrementally change the very character of your democracy.” Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO THE ALBERTA OIL SANDS:
UNDERSTANDING THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMAN IMPACTS, EXPORT IMPLICATIONS, AND POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, AND INDUSTRY INFLUENCES
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is Oil Sands oil and how is it mined?
The Athabasca River
PART 1: Environmental and human impacts, government inadequacies,
and viable alternatives
Natural gas consumption
Alternate energy sources
Water resources – surface water
Water resources – groundwater
Water resources and climate change
Future water demands – ecological concerns and water security
Future water demands – industry concerns
Greenhouse gas emissions
Wheel-to-pump vs wheel-to-well emissions
Overview of Oil Sands emissions
Upgrading and refining of Oil Sands bitumen
Accounting of Oil Sands production-related GHG emissions
Biocarbon and the boreal forest
Emission intensity reductions in the Oil Sands
Current Federal and Alberta GHG emission reduction plans
What are tailings ponds?
What are mature fine tailings (MFT)?
Tailings ponds leakage
How are tailings ponds constructed?
Leakage amounts and concerns
Air and site pollution
Land and wildlife impacts
Impacts on First Nations people
First Nations vs the Oil Sands
Treaties and legal actions
Environmental and health concerns
- lack of government oversight and action
Water pollution and conservation
Greenhouse gas emissions
Canada’s standing on the world stage
Environmental assessment and monitoring
A history of government inadequacies
Recent government strategy
Reclamation costs and liabilities
In situ vs mining
Forest fragmentation and harm to wildlife
Resource use comparisons
Living and working conditions in the Oil Sands region
Temporary Foreign Workers
Exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers
Criticisms of the government’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program
Canada’s commitment to youth and future generations
Part 2: Pipelines, CCS, and politics
Pipelines – Existing (major, export)
Crude oil pipelines – major proposed expansions
TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone Gulf Expansion Project, Keystone XL
Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project proposal
Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline proposed expansion
Pipelines and oil tankers – Environmental impacts
Environmental impacts specific to pipelines
Indirect environmental impacts
Pipeline failure statistics
Major pipeline failures and ruptures
Enbridge pipeline spills’ aftermaths
Environmental impacts specific to oil tankers
Oil spill statistics
Oil spill cleanup
Export to the United States
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and political greenwashing
What is CCS?
CCS in the Oil Sands
CCS and greenhouse gas emissions reduction
CCS – Resource implications CCS – Cost implications 54
Carbon pricing 55
CCS – Storage implications – capacity
CCS – Storage implications – leakage
Risks to groundwater
Potential dangers of CO2 leakage
CCS – Storage implications – scale
CCS – Liability and climate change
CCS – Enhanced Oil Recover (EOR)
CCS – CCS-related projects
Existing commercial-scale scale CCS projects
Proposed CCS-related projects in Alberta
Political and economic issues
Oil Sands investments
Oil Sands royalties
Fossil fuel subsidies
Repercussions of fossil fuel subsidies
Benefits of phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
Canadian government’s vs global commitments
on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
Politics behind subsidies
A sampling of political, economic, and industry influences
Oil Sands oil
Greenhouse gas emissions
Examples of industry influence inside Canada
Examples of industry influence outside Canada
A sampling of the historical influence of the United States
Foreign Investment – China’s investments in the Oil Sands
A sampling of unheeded warnings and recommendations
from government reports
Recommendations from Natural Resources Canada
Recent studies and recommendations
Part 3: Global warming and growing concern
Global warming and mitigation
Canada’s low carbon performance compared to other industrialized countries
Lack of action on climate change mitigation is setting the world on
a path to surpass 2°C
A 4 degree warmer world
Adaptation vs mitigation
Growing concern about the Oil Sands and climate change
Canadians deserve an honest debate about the Oil Sands and climate change
Further exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel