Upset over the tar sands

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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…