Controversial studies suggest pollution from Alberta oil sands is largely localized

New research that claims pollution from Alberta oil sands mines remains largely local is unlikely to change any minds among those staunchly opposed to the massive energy development.

The surprising conclusions of two studies published in the last few weeks by respected Canadian scientists suggest that while the area immediately surrounding oil sands mining operations contaminate the area within 50 kilometres, the pollution doesn’t appear to be reaching downstream areas 200 kilometres away.

According to the Globe and Mail, the scientists sampled lake-bottom sediment and discovered negligible levels of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and particulates.

In fact, drilling deeply into the sediments, they found many lakes were cleaner today than in past decades or even centuries, the Globe said.

“It’s still, by and large, a natural landscape,” Roland Hall, a University of Waterloo professor of biology and one of the lead researchers on one of the studies, told the Globe.

[ Related: Oil sands development about to exceed Alberta’s new pollution limits ]

The research conclusions run counter to longstanding claims by communities downstream from the oil sands operations around Fort McMurray, Alta., that pollutants have contaminated water, fish and people.

Hall said his study concluded the toxins originate from natural sources of polycyclic aromatic compounds “via the water continue to be a main process that’s delivering them.”

But critics were quick to jump on the results. The Globe noted University of Alberta professor David Schindler said the researchers’ lake sampling was “well outside the range where atmospheric transport would reach it, so tells nothing about that source. In short, it adds very little to the controversy over the amount that industry is contributing to the river.”

The research was also funded by Suncor Energy Inc., a major oil sands developer. But Hall and his associates apparently couldn’t find anyone else to pay for the work, the Globe said.

The scientists behind the study aren’t crackpots. Hall is associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, currently on sabbatical, the Globe reported. Brent Wolfe holds the northern research chair from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. And George Dixon, Waterloo vice-president of research, is known internationally for his expertise on water toxicology.

According to the Globe, the researchers found levels of airborne metals peaked in the late 1950s and 1960s, when oil sands extraction was still a concept. Arsenic dropped to pre-industrial levels and lead is now 10 per cent above “background” concentrations.

The scientists suggested the declines could be tied to the move to unleaded fuel and the closure of smelting operations at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine, a huge emitter of arsenic.

[ Related: Canada’s claim to be energy superpower rings hollow ]

Levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds, known to cause cataracts, organ damage and cancer, were lowest between 1975 and 1995, during a period of oil-sands growth, the Globe said. The researchers found the compounds were higher in the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, when Prairies saw a lot of forest-fire activity.

Hall noted his research doesn’t negate the findings of Schindler and others showing contamination within a 50-kilometre radius of oil-sands operations.

Toxic substances found in snow near Alberta oilsands

Opponents of Canada’s policy to rapidly develop oil sands production are likely to leap on newly released research suggesting pollution from mining the oil-laden bitumin is showing up in snow near extraction sites and also in lakes up to 100 kilometres away.

CBC News reported that a presentation by Environment Canada scientists this week to a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in California turned up toxic substances dangerous to fish eggs in snow.

University of Alberta biologist David Schindler said he’s not surprised by the results and that the studies “confirm my worst suspicions.”

[ Related: Controversial studies suggest oil sands pollution largely localized ]

In 2009, Schindler also found contaminants in snow near the oil sands and later his team discovered a fish with a tumor, which they linked to oil-sands contamination, CBC News said.

The snow within 50 kilometres of oil-sands operations was contaminated with a long list of “priority pollutants,” including a neurotoxin that builds up in food webs, Postmedia News reported. Snow-melt runoff collected near oil-sands plants was toxic to newly hatched minnows in the lab, the researchers found.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Erin Carrier said the provincial government takes the findings seriously.

“We recognize that there is naturally occurring bitumen in the area,” Carrier told CBC News. “But we also recognize that with the development of oilsands in the area, that we do have to monitor.”

The Alberta government says it has worked with Ottawa to launch a joint monitoring program in northern Alberta.

Another study being presented at the conference in Long Beach, Calif., reveals that Environment Canada scientists have discovered contaminants linked to oil sands in the sediments of lakes up to 100 kilometres away, according to Postmedia News.

“The footprint of the deposition is potentially larger than we might have anticipated,” said Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist.

The pollutants found in lake sediment are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

“That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found,” said Schindler, referring to his own research that tracked heavy metals and other pollutants up to 50 kilometres from oil-sands operations.

The research, which looked at six remote lakes whose sediments have been collecting undisturbed for a century except for atmospheric deposits, found the level of PAHs increased dramatically beginning in the early 1970s to up to 23 times pre-1960s levels.

However, the hydrocarbon contaminants were lower than “guideline limits” except for the lake closest to oil-sands operations, researchers found.

“So overall we don’t think that the PAHs have yet reached a level in the sediments of these lakes where they are going to be toxic to aquatic life,” Muir told Postmedia News.

But “there is definitely a concern about it,” he said, adding more work in underway to sample sediments in other remote lakes in the region.

The study seem to contradict results in research released last month that found only negligible levels of contaminants in lakes up to 200 kilometres from oil-sands operations. The two earlier studies suggested PAH contamination came from natural sources via water runoff.

Critics have challenged the sampling methods and the fact the work was bankrolled by an oilsands producer.

Environmentalists worry that given the Conservative government’s policy towards rapid oilsands development, the research done by Environment Canada scientists won’t get much attention.

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“Scientists have been told to refer questions to media liaisons and not to actually speak about their studies themselves,” Chelsea Flook, executive director for the Prairies at the Sierra Club, told CBC News.

At a similar conference held in Boston last year, Environment Canada scientists were given a list of precise answers for reporters’ questions, CBC News said.

Postmedia News reported that Environment Canada said scientists were not available to discuss their findings and only arranged interviews after the news agency obtained details of the reports to be presented at the Long Beach conference this week.

More oil sands in the pipeline than the future will want: IEA

Barry Saxifrage
Alberta has already approved far more oil sands production than the world will want according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

If the IEA is right, it means an end to new oil sands project approvals and probably an abandonment of some that have already been approved. It also means Canadians might want to re-evaluate the need for bitterly controversial new tar sands pipelines — like Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and the Transmountain twin.

Let’s take a look at some of the details.

The IEA has arguably the world’s most detailed and comprehensive database on global energy. Their flagship annual report — World Energy Outlook — is an essential resource relied upon by many of the world’s major economies, as well as global energy industries. The IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook report specifically analyzed future oil sands demand under several possible energy scenarios. In every scenario, global demand for oil sands in 2035 was well below what has now been approved.

What makes this analysis so remarkable is that the IEA is a friendly proponent of the oil sands. They open their report saying “production from Canadian oil sands is set to continue to grow over the projection period, making an important contribution to the world’s energy security.” No greenie tree-huggers there.

But the IEA are also hard-nosed economists who include in their analysis the reality that high production costs coupled with high carbon emissions will hurt the competitiveness of the oil sands in the future. They conclude that there are already more oil sands projects in the pipeline than will be needed to supply future demand.

My chart below details this oil supply and demand mismatch:

The red column shows that already approved projects will be able to deliver 5.2 million barrels of oil a day (mmbpd). Additional projects to deliver another 3.8 mmbpd are working towards approval. Both the industry and the Alberta government say they are planning for 5.0 mmbpd to be flowing out the taps by 2030, with more supply coming soon after.

For comparison, my chart shows the high-end and low-end of the IEA demand scenarios for the year 2035.
Lowest demand scenario

In the most hopeful IEA scenario, humanity limits climate change to 2 degrees Celsius — which is more than double warming so far. Two degrees is the threshold above which most climate scientists say an overheating climate becomes dire and dangerous for us.

As US President Obama warned in his acceptance speech last week, the “destructive power of a warming planet” is a growing threat that must be addressed.

In this scenario, the IEA says global demand for oil sands will be 3.3 mmbpd. Over a third of the 5.2 mmbpd the industry already has approval for, and is planning to produce, won’t be economically viable.

In fact future demand can be met almost entirely with currently producing projects plus those in construction. About 90 percent of projects already approved but not being built yet won’t be needed.
Highest demand scenario

The IEA’s most pessimistic scenario has humanity choosing a dirty energy path leading to a climate “catastrophe” of 6 degrees Celsius of global warming. As the IEA said when releasing their report: ” Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us.” (see: Climate “catastrophe” of 6C dead ahead: IEA.)

But even in this dystopian future of climate misery the IEA says that only 4.6 mmbpd of tar sands oil will be economically viable. This is still well below the industry game plan of 5.0 mmbpd by 2030, rising to 6.0 mmbpd by 2035.

However you slice it, it is looking increasingly likely that demand for Alberta’s oil sands will fall well short of even today’s commitments. The endless growth scenario is looking more like a long walk on a short pier. Albertan’s would be wise to protect themselves from this risk while they still can.
MIT agrees

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) titled “Canada’s Bitumen Industry Under CO2 Constraints” backs up the notion that Alberta’s oil sands will struggle to compete in a low-carbon future. Its conclusions are blunt:

“The niche for the oil sands industry seems fairly narrow and mostly involves hoping that climate policy will fail…”

“When there is substantial participation of developing countries in a climate policy there appears to be little role for Canadian oil sands…”

“… with CO2 emissions caps implemented worldwide, the Canadian bitumen production becomes essentially non-viable even with CCS technology.”

The threat of over-capitalizing the industry leading to many billions in stranded assets and punishing debt burdens is real. For a glimpse of such a future the Albertans can just look across the border at what is happening to the USA coal industry.
Fall of the king

As I wrote recently, King Coal is struggling to avoid sliding off just such a carbon cliff. Their plans for rapid growth have quickly morphed into collapse. (see: Rapid collapse of USA coal holds warning for tar sands.)

Major US coal companies have seen their stock prices get slashed in half this year. Billions in assets are being stranded or sold at pennies on the dollar. Credit ratings are plunging as debt load from boom time dreaming is weighing down balance sheets. Energy economists at the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) determined that US coal demand would virtually disappear under moderate climate policies. A modest and rising carbon price would see a 92 percent decline in coal burning by 2035.

It is global warming, stupid.

America’s coal industry ignored the basic facts that climate change is real, it is dangerous and therefore carbon emissions will become ever more restricted and expensive in the future. Despite clear warnings from top energy economists, the American coal industry gambled big money on expansion plans even as they were plunging headlong into the low-carbon future. That hubris and swagger is now looking like a losing bet for both its shareholders and the coal communities.

Instead of taking the risk seriously and using the value in their resource to fund a graceful transition to a more sustainable future economy, the players on the stage shook their fists in defiance against the coming storm until it literally crashed over them.

The reality is that high-carbon fuels, no matter how abundant, face a very challenging economic future as climate change tightens its grip on our lives. Of all the forms of coping, in the end denial is the least successful.

For decades climate scientists have warned that climate change was coming and it would be nasty if we didn’t act.

We didn’t. In recent years more and more of the world’s top energy economists are starting to warn in very stark language that the dirtiest of our fossil fuels are incompatible with a safe climate system.

We are facing a choice: either we leave the dirtiest fuels in the ground or we inject our climate system with so many “steroids” that increasingly chaotic and extreme weather will threaten our food supply, water supply and trillions of dollars in infrastructure.

The extreme weather we have experienced in recent years comes after just 0.8 C of warming. The IEA says our high carbon path will lead to nearly eight times that much — 6.0 C of warming — during the lifetime of today’s kids.

Yet even on that miserable path we don’t need all the tar sands we have already approved.
Sell by expiry date.

Perhaps, the game afoot in Alberta and Ottawa is to off-load on foreigners as much of our tar sands deposits and infrastructure as we can before the expiry date.

Or perhaps, like King Coal, dot-com investors and the recent Romney campaign, the people in charge are just too invested in the dream to accept any unpleasant reality that spoils their narrative. Perhaps Alberta and Ottawa really will fail to act on the clear and present danger. If so, we will all be forced to wait and watch as unpleasant reality crashes the party and we are left to pick up the pieces.

Upset over the tar sands

By Stan Hirst

“Stop the tar sands!” says my fellow Elder. Then he thumps the table. “We should make that the key objective of the Suzuki Elders.”

It’s easy to see why thinking people get upset over the tar sands, or Alberta Oil Sands as they are more safely referred to east of the Rockies. More than 600 km2 of boreal forest (roughly the same area as greater Vancouver) have already been cleared, mined or otherwise very significantly disturbed. One-fifth of Alberta’s land area is currently under lease for further such bitumen mining and extraction.

The gunk-like bitumen makes up only 10% of the excavated tar sand, so something like two tons of sand must be processed to get one barrel of oil. About 40% of the bitumen resource is beyond the reach of conventional excavation, so pressurized steam injection is needed to force the stuff to the surface. The necessary steam generation chews up 34 m3 of natural gas to produce one barrel of bitumen from in situ projects and about 20 m3 in the case of integrated projects, so daily use of purchased gas in the oil sands amounts to something like 21 million m3. Average emissions for oil sands extraction and upgrading (per barrel) are 3.2 to 4.5 times that for conventional crude oil.

Water requirements for steam and other uses range from 2 to 4.5 m3 of water per each cubic metre of synthetic crude oil extracted in a mining operation. The companies in the oil sands are licensed to withdraw 650 million m2 of water from the Athabasca River annually (equal to seven times the annual water needs of city the size of Edmonton). Oil sands operations currently recycle and reuse about ¾ of the water extracted from the Athabasca River.

An average of 1.5 barrels of a processed mix of water, sand, silt, clay, contaminants and unrecovered hydrocarbons is generated for every barrel of bitumen produced, and 200 million litres of this sludge is dumped into tailings ponds every day. The area of the ponds is currently in excess of 130 km2 (about the total area of Richmond B.C.) with a projected increase to 310 km2 by 2040. Tailings pond water is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and mammals and contains substances such as naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, mercury and other trace metals, some of which are toxic to humans while others are known carcinogens.

Unhappy situation? The future is scarier. China badly needs oil to keep its huge economy powering forward and has now invested $4.7 billion in Syncrude. China will presumably want its share of the crude oil at the end of a pipeline in Kitimat B.C.

Are the oil sands sustainable in the long term? Yes, says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The oil sands are the 2nd largest crude oil reserve in the world, and supply the U.S. with 20% of its crude oil. This proportion can only increase as Saudi Arabia and the Middle East run out of easy oil and Venezuela and the rest of the producers get ever shirtier with our southern neighbours. World surplus oil production capacity will disappear in the next five years, and the global shortfall by 2015 could reach 10 million barrels per day. Biomass is not a substitute for oil in most sectors because of low photosynthetic efficiency (Brazil, the world leader in biomass energy production, burns up just 1/3 barrel of ethanol but 4½ barrels of oil per person annually). Solar and other energy sources are a long way from replacing oil as the main driver of the transportation sector. Current mining and extraction operations affect less than ½ percent of the total oil sand area, so there is a lot more gunk out there to be dug up and processed.

Sustainable? No, say the greens. The current annual CO2 emissions from all this mining and refining are something like 40 million tonnes which is currently 5% of the Canadian total. This level of CO2 output will obviously increase if plans for oil sands expansion are implemented. To keep emissions down to levels consistent with Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, very expensive and untested proposals for carbon capture and storage will need to be implemented. The tailings ponds stand accused of being leaky, to the tune of 11 million litres of contaminated water per day. Toxic and carcinogenic compounds from the tailings and emissions are contaminating surrounding water and areas and are suspected of causing cancer in local communities. Wildlife, especially waterfowl, are heavily impacted by oil sand operations and tailings disposal. By 2020 the projected water use in the oil sands will be an estimated 45 m3/s which is nearly half the Athabasca River’s low winter flow during eight of the years since 1980 and in every year since 1999. The Peace-Athabasca Delta downstream of the oil sands is already exhibiting negative effects of declining water supply from climate change and the impacts of the upstream Bennett Dam in B.C.

Naturally, none of this is acceptable. The evidence mounts daily that current oil sand operations are simply pushing the envelope too far and too close to allowable and acceptable limits in the natural and human ecosystem — too many emissions, too much danger to downstream human communities, too many ecological impacts, too great a drain on dwindling water resources. So what we should be doing is insisting, absolutely, that whatever they produce be churned out with full consideration to the ecosystem and the local communities, and with full reckoning of the costs thereof.

Let’s be honest — the oil people up in Fort McMurray are not munching tons of sand just to annoy a few of us down here. They are simply supplying a commodity which is in huge demand by society. They didn’t create the demand, they’re just good at providing what society wants, i.e. cheap fossil fuel to burn in gridlocked Escalades standing on the Santa Monica freeway.

Stop the tar sands? Not likely. The current value of the plant alone exceeds $90 billion. Billions of dollars accrue to tax revenues from the oil sands every year, and 60% go into federal coffers. The Alberta coffers currently take in almost $2 billion annually from royalties. This money is the source of many federal and provincial programs and services in infrastructure, health and education. One in every 15 Albertans works for the energy industry, Take a stroll around Calgary and check out the fine recreational facilities and art museums funded by Big Oil. You had better go tell those folks you want to shut them down, fellow Elder, because I sure ain’t.

The long-term solution to this quandary is not to storm the bastion or the tailings ponds or whatever. It’s much duller, more difficult and highly contentious (sort of Elder-ish). In other words, it’s a matter of economics and politics. Fossil fuels are simply too cheap to discourage the present profligate consumption and the associated high rate of oil production from sources such as the oil sands. Moreover, production from the oil sands is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer. The full costs of the negative consequences of production, especially the ones difficult to quantify (e.g. higher cancer rates in local people) are never costed into the production equation. So two approaches immediately present themselves: make oil energy costs totally realistic though elimination of subsidies, and level the playing field through the imposition of carbon taxes. B.C. has already demonstrated that the latter are not necessarily politically unacceptable.

The objective, fellow Elders, is not to stop the tar sands, it’s to make them redundant.

Now, the next job is to convince the other ten million Elders of this…