TAR SANDS: The Myth of Tidewater Access

The idea that greater pipeline capacity and access to tidewater would maximize the value Alberta receives for its tar sands crude is a standard talking point for industry, politicians, and other commentators in the ongoing oil price-induced recession in Alberta. With the province bearing significant consequences of the collapse of global oil prices, attention is rightfully focused on what can and should be done to support Alberta through, and out of, its economic rut.

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‘Anti-petroleum’ movement a growing security threat to Canada, RCMP say

The RCMP has labelled the “”anti-petroleum”” movement as a growing and violent threat to Canada’’s security, raising fears among environmentalists that they face increased surveillance, and possibly worse, under the Harper government’s new terrorism legislation.

In highly charged language that reflects the government’’s hostility toward environmental activists, an RCMP intelligence assessment warns that foreign-funded groups are bent on blocking oil sands expansion and pipeline construction, and that the extremists in the movement are willing to resort to violence.

“There is a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’’s reliance on fossil fuels,”” concludes the report which is stamped “”protected/Canadian eyes only”” and is dated Jan. 24, 2014. The report was obtained by Greenpeace.

““If violent environmental extremists engage in unlawful activity, it jeopardizes the health and safety of its participants, the general public and the natural environment.””

The government has tabled Bill C-51, which provides greater power to the security agencies to collect information on and disrupt the activities of suspected terrorist groups. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has identified the threat as violent extremists motivated by radical Islamic views, the legislation would also expand the ability of government agencies to infiltrate environmental groups on the suspicion that they are promoting civil disobedience or other criminal acts to oppose resource projects.

The legislation identifies “activity that undermines the security of Canada” as anything that interferes with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’-s critical infrastructure, though it excludes lawful protest or dissent. And it allows the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service to take measures to reduce what it perceives to be threats to the security of Canada.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has already launched challenges to the RCMP complaints commission and the Security Intelligence Review Committee–which oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service–over alleged surveillance of groups opposed to the construction of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in B.C.

“”These kind of cases involving environmental groups–or anti-petroleum groups as the RCMP likes to frame them–are really the sharp end of the stick in terms of Bill C-51,”” said Paul Champ, a civil liberties lawyer who is handling the BCCLA complaints. “”With respect to Bill C-51, I and other groups have real concerns it is going to target not just terrorists who are involved in criminal activity, but people who are protesting against different Canadian government policies.””

RCMP spokesman Sergeant Greg Cox insisted the Mounties do not conduct surveillance unless there is suspicion of criminal conduct.

“”As part of its law enforcement mandate, the RCMP does have the requirement to identify and investigate criminal threats, including those to critical infrastructure and at public events,”” Sgt. Cox said in an e-mailed statement. “”There is no focus on environmental groups, but rather on the broader criminal threats to Canada’s critical infrastructure. The RCMP does not monitor any environmental protest group. Its mandate is to investigate individuals involved in criminality.””

But Sgt. Cox would not comment on the tone of the January, 2014, assessment that suggests opposition to resource development runs counter to Canada’’s national interest and links groups such as Greenpeace, Tides Canada and the Sierra Club to growing militancy in the “”anti-petroleum movement.””

The report extolls the value of the oil and gas sector to the Canadian economy, and adds that many environmentalists “”claim”” that climate change is the most serious global environmental threat, and “”claim”” it is a direct consequence of human activity and is “”reportedly”” linked to the use of fossil fuels. It echoes concerns first raised by Finance Minister Joe Oliver that environmental groups are foreign-funded and are working against the interests of Canada by opposing development.

“”This document identifies anyone who is concerned about climate change as a potential, if not actual–the lines are very blurry ––‘anti-petroleum extremist’’ looking to advance their ‘‘anti-petroleum ideology,'”’” said Keith Stewart, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace.

““The parts that are genuinely alarming about this document are how it lays the groundwork for all kinds of state-sanctioned surveillance and dirty tricks should C-51 be passed,”” he said.

A spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada said Bill C-51 does not change the definition of what constitutes a threat to Canadian security, and added CSIS does not investigate lawful dissent.

“”CSIS has a good track record of distinguishing genuine threats to the security of Canada from other activities,”” Public Safety Canada’’s Josée Sirois said. “”The independent reports of the Security Intelligence Review Committee attest to CSIS’’s compliance with the law.””


Mr. Obama’’s Easy Call on Keystone Bill

The New York Times Editorial Board

Congress has delivered to President Obama a bill commanding him to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, accompanied by a warning from House Speaker John Boehner to ignore the “”left-fringe extremists and anarchists”” who oppose the project.

It was not immediately clear whom Mr. Boehner had in mind, unless he meant the 90 scientists, economists and Nobel laureates who appealed this week to Mr. Obama to reject the pipeline on the grounds that the United States should not be complicit in unlocking some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet. In any case, Mr. Obama should ignore the speaker and, as he has promised, veto the bill. Because the pipeline would cross an international border, the decision about whether to proceed is his to make, not Congress’s, and the State Department review that will help guide that decision is not yet complete.

The veto is the easy call. The tougher one–for the president and his secretary of state, John Kerry–is whether eventually to say yes or no to the pipeline, which would carry about 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta’’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In the great scheme of things, this would not be a big addition to a global oil output that now exceeds 90 million barrels a day. And the oil would come from a reliable friend, Canada. Building the pipeline would also provide about 3,900 temporary construction jobs over two years, but no more than 50 permanent jobs thereafter.

At the same time, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have declared, without reservation, that climate change is a grave and increasingly tangible threat to world stability. The Canadian tar sands oil can only add to that threat.

One reason is that tar sands oil yields roughly 17 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil. A bigger reason is that there is so much of it–170 billion barrels recoverable with today’’s technology and maybe 10 times that amount in potential resources. Mainstream climate scientists are virtually unanimous in saying that as much as two-thirds of the world’’s deposits of fossil fuels must remain in the ground if climate disaster is to be avoided. Alberta’’s tar sands oil should be among the first such deposits we decide to leave alone.

Saying no to the pipeline will not prevent the Canadians (and American oil companies that have invested in Alberta) from extracting the oil. But it could make the job much harder. The industry hopes to expand daily production to about five million barrels in 2030 from the current 1.9 million. Doing this profitably will require robust oil prices and access to pipelines, which are a much cheaper way of moving oil than rail. And with oil prices falling fast, pipelines become even more necessary.

Not building a pipeline means that more oil — and more carbon dioxide — will be left in the ground. That is the main reason to say no. Another is that, at least right now, this country does not need the oil. Improved technology, chiefly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has opened up vast new deposits of not only natural gas but crude oil; in January 2014, Mr. Obama was able to announce that for the first time in decades the United States was producing more oil than it imported, and the Energy Information Administration has forecast that reliance on overseas oil will continue to fall.

The stars seem very much in alignment for a courageous presidential decision that would command worldwide attention and reinforce America’’s leadership role in the battle against global warming.

How Little We Know About Heavy Tar Sands Oil

George Zornick

When the Exxon Pegasus pipeline ruptured Friday in Mayflower, Arkansas, tens of thousands of gallons of diluted bitumen were sent forth into a residential neighborhood, and 22 homes had to be evacuated. Since this is the same sort of oil that would be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline, were it to be built, the Arkansas spill is appropriately spurring a conversation about safety. Is Keystone also going to lead to more spills? (There have been twelve on the completed portions of the pipeline already.) And how dangerous is this stuff spilling all over the ground?

But this conversation must start with a simple fact: There are too many known unknowns about diluted bitumen. We don’t know exactly what’s in it, and the government hasn’t fully studied how safe it is to transport.

Bitumen is a form of petroleum that occurs in a solid, or semi-solid, state: It can be sludgy or even be brittle, like rocks. That’s what is buried deep in the Canadian oil sands. In order to transport this bitumen through thousands of miles of pipelines so that it can be refined, it has to first be diluted, so it flows like a liquid.

That diluent is usually a natural gas liquid—but we don’t know for certain what it is. The industry considers its diluent formulas proprietary information and won’t share it with regulators.

When the State Department released its first Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone XL, the EPA gave it an “inadequate” rating in part because it didn’t have any specific information on diluents. “We believe an analysis of potential diluents is important to establish the potential health and environmental impacts of any spilled oil, and responder/worker safety, and to develop response strategies,” the EPA said at the time.

Yet, the second and final Enviromental Impact Statement of Keystone XL released recently by the State Department still had no specific information on dilbit diluents, and evaded the question with some generalities:

The exact composition of the dilbit is not publicly available because the particular type of bitumen and diluents blend produced is variable and is typically a trade secret. The bitumen­ diluent mixture with bitumen from the oil sands is generally similar to heavy sour crude. […]

Although reported information on dilbit releases is scarce in the literature, once diluents and bitumen are mixed together to form dilbit, they behave as a conventional crude oil. Therefore, this assessment has focused on the impact of crude oil in general, but when applicable, evaluated the specific characteristics (i.e. viscosity) of dilbit. The degree of impact can vary depending on the cause, size, type, volume, location, season, environmental conditions, and the timing and degree of response actions.

Researchers and regulators know roughly what’s in dilbit—just not enough. “I think what they don’t know are what the specific chemicals are in any pipeline or any batch, because companies could use different chemicals at different times, depending on what’s cheapest at hand at any one moment,” Carl Weimer, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, told The Nation.

The composition of those chemicals could greatly influence how the dilbit behaves once spilled—whether it sinks or floats in water, for example. In an emergency clean-up situation, that’s really good information to have.

And what we do know about the danger of tar sands oil is already disturbing. The State Department’s report does focus on the damaging properties of benzene, and notes that “[b]ecause the diluted bitumen crude oils have a significant amount of lighter hydrocarbons added, they tend to have higher benzene concentrations than many other heavy oils.” Benzene, the report states, “was determined to dominate toxicity associated with potential crude oil spills.” Benzene is an unusually toxic chemical that was found in the air after the Enbridge tar sands spill of 2011, and can cause a wide range of severe physical damage to animals, plants and humans.

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So the government doesn’t really know what’s in the dilbit once it spills—but it also knows shockingly little about how to prevent these accidents to begin with. Many conservation groups contend, with ample evidence, that tar sands oil leads to more spills because it is “highly corrosive, acidic and potentially unstable.”

The chief regulator of pipelines is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2011 Cynthia Quarterman, the agency’s director, appeared before Congress and admitted under questioning from Representative Henry Waxman that her agency had no idea whether dilbit is more dangerous to transport than normal crudes, and had not even studied the question:

REP. WAXMAN: Ms. Quarterman, when PHMSA adopted its basic safety requirements such as establishing maximum operating pressures or setting integrity management requirements, were many US pipelines transporting diluted bitumen? And were any of your regulations developed with the properties of diluted bitumen in mind?

MS. QUARTERMAN: When the integrity management program requirements were first put in place on the hazardous liquid side, I think it was 2000, 2002, there were pipelines in existence that transport diluted bitumen. I don’t believe any study was done at that time of the characteristics of the crude.

REP. WAXMAN: Were your regulations developed with the properties of diluted bitumen in mind?

MS. QUARTERMAN: I don’t believe it was a part of the equation, no.

REP. WAXMAN: Have you received [sic] your regulations to assess whether they adequately address any risks specific to diluted bitumen?

MS. QUARTERMAN: We have not done so.

Since that exchange, Congress passed the Pipeline Safety Act, which was panned by many environmentalists as too weak. The bill didn’t update any regulations to include dilbit transportation, but did mandate that PHMSA study the problem and act, if needed.

The National Academy of Sciences is currently working on that study, and will release its findings this summer. If they find that diluted bitumen is abnormally dangerous to transport, as many other independent researchers have, they will recommend new regulations.

But for now—and for the next several months, and probably years—the government is flying blind about how to transport diluted bitumen. It also doesn’t even know what’s in the stuff once it spills.

That’s crucial context when considering whether to build Keystone XL, which would carry millions of barrels of dilbit across the entire country.

Read George Zornick on new details from the Newtown and Tucson shootings showing how assault weapons and high-capacity magazines increase body counts.

Crude, Dirty and Dangerous


EVERY day more than one million barrels of oil flow to refineries in the United States from western Canada’s oil sands region. Producers hope to quadruple that amount in the next decade, arguing that oil from a friendly neighbor will deliver an extra degree of national security.

But this oil is no ordinary crude oil, and it carries with it risks that we’re only beginning to understand. Its core ingredient — bitumen — is not pumped from wells but is strip-mined or boiled loose underground.

Industry insiders long considered bitumen to be a “garbage” crude. But now that the light, sweet oil we covet has become more scarce and its price has skyrocketed, bitumen has become worth the trouble to recover. At room temperature, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter, thick enough to hold in your hands. To get it through pipelines, liquid chemicals must be added to thin it into what’s known as dilbit, short for diluted bitumen.

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that was harshly critical of the federal government’s regulation and oversight of pipeline safety following a spill of more than one million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. The accident underscored not only how different dilbit is from conventional oil, but how unprepared we are for the impending flood of imports.

After the dilbit gushed into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy bitumen sank to the river bottom, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated, creating a foul smell that lingered for days. People reported headaches, dizziness and nausea. No one could say with certainty what they should do. Federal officials at the scene didn’t know until weeks later that the pipeline was carrying dilbit, because federal law doesn’t require pipeline operators to reveal that information.

The 2010 spill could have been worse if it had reached Lake Michigan, as authorities originally feared it might. Lake Michigan supplies drinking water to more than 12 million people. Fortunately, the damage was restricted to a tributary creek and about 36 miles of the Kalamazoo, used primarily for recreation, not drinking water.

This close call hasn’t deterred the energy industry from announcing plans to build or repurpose more than 10,000 miles of pipelines to carry dilbit to the United States and global markets. That includes the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, which would pass through the Ogallala aquifer, the nation’s largest drinking water aquifer. It supplies drinking water for eight states and about 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation.

The nation’s pipeline network was designed to handle conventional crude oil and is governed by laws and regulations that were written long before the unique risks and hazards associated with dilbit began to emerge. In fact, dilbit is exempt from an excise tax that pays for oil spill cleanups, because the 1980 law that created the tax did not consider bitumen from the “tar sands” to be crude oil.

After the spill, Congress passed new pipeline safety legislation, but it will take years for its modest provisions to have any impact. It does not require pipeline companies to reveal whether their lines are shipping dilbit. And while it does require a study of how dilbit affects pipeline corrosion, the scientists conducting that study met for the first time only last month, and their work is not likely to be completed before new pipelines are built or old ones are repurposed.

The N.T.S.B.’s investigation of the Michigan spill identified “a complete breakdown of safety” at Enbridge, the pipeline’s operator. But it also revealed that pipeline rules are weakly enforced. One telling fact: Enbridge discovered defects in the area where the pipeline eventually ruptured as early as 2005, and reported them to regulators. Yet the company was able to delay making repairs without breaking any rules.

The N.T.S.B. also found that Enbridge’s leak detection system did not work as advertised. The company had said that its sensors could spot a leak and shut down in less than 10 minutes. TransCanada, the company that is building the Keystone XL, makes similar claims. Yet it took operators in Enbridge’s Canadian control room 17 hours to realize their pipeline had torn open. Sensors triggered 16 alarms but operators continued to pump dilbit into the line, believing the problem was an air bubble, until someone in Michigan saw oil on the ground and called Enbridge’s emergency line.

The leak-detection problem is industry-wide. Oil spill data maintained by federal regulators show that over the last 10 years, advanced leak detection systems identified only one out of every 20 reported pipeline leaks. Members of the public detected and reported leaks at four times that rate.

Now that the industry is aiming to fill almost a quarter of America’s domestic oil needs from western Canadian sources, we need a transparent and informed discussion about dilbit’s risks and benefits, up-to-date laws and regulations, and improved leak detection.

The N.T.S.B. chairwoman likened Enbridge employees to Keystone Kops in their handling of the Michigan dilbit disaster. It is a label that could come to apply to the rest of us if we don’t guard against future catastrophe.

David Sassoon is the publisher of InsideClimate News, which published the e-book “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Plains Midstream charged for largest Alberta oil spill in decades

Matt McClure

Plains Midstream charged for largest Alberta oil spill in decades

Crews cleanup a pipeline break northeast of Peace River, Alta. on May 4, 2011. The Alberta government has charged Plains Midstream Canada for the massive oil spill that fouled land in the northwestern part of the province.

As the province announces a pipeline giant could face fines of up to $1.5 million in connection with Alberta’s largest oil spill in over three decades, it faces fresh accusations its regulation of the industry is inadequate.

The province issued a news release Friday revealing that Plains Midstream Canada ULC has been charged with three counts of violating environmental protection laws in connection with the April 2011 release of 4.5 million litres of light crude near a First Nations community in northwest Alberta.

The charges relate to the spill itself, failing to take all reasonable measures to repair the problem and not pursing all steps possible to remediate and dispose of the oil that contaminated over three hectares of beaver ponds and muskeg in a densely-forested area.

The charges were filed in Peace River’s provincial court mere days before a two-year limitation period expired and a year after another Plains pipeline ruptured and released nearly a half million litres into a central Alberta river.

Environmental advocates criticized the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s response as slow.

“Plains had another spill on another pipeline while this government decided whether to lay charges,” said Nathan Lemphers, a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute.

“The delay suggests the province doesn’t have the resources it needs to enforce the law even as it ramps up production in the oils sand and allows the expansion of pipelines to carry that resource.”

Department investigators were unavailable, but a spokesperson defended the time it took to lay charges,

“It’s important we determine all the facts and ensure the enforcement steps taken are appropriate,” Nikki Booth said.

The charges come two months after Alberta’s energy regulator issued a scathing report that found the company appeared to place a higher priority on keeping the pipeline running than on any concerns about the leak.

The Energy Resource Conservation Board cited Plains for inadequate leak detection and response, after finding an employee at the company’s control centre in Olds restarted the pipeline several times after the initial break.

The ERCB report also found the 45-year-old Rainbow pipeline — which Plains purchased from Imperial Oil Ltd four years ago for $544 million — began leaking when a sleeve used for corrosion repair failed.

Board investigators said workers did not properly inspect the weld on the sleeve when the pipeline was excavated a year before the spill. Plains also failed to properly backfill and compact soil around the pipe, resulting in additional stress that contributed to the weld’s failure.

Greenpeace said in a release Friday that documents it obtained under freedom of information legislation show that ERCB investigators recommended a public inquiry into the spill, but the proposal was rejected by the board’s chief operating officer.

The groups says the documents released also show that when three more spills — including the second Plains Midstream release — occurred, Alberta’s energy minister worked closely with the oil industry to ensure a review of pipeline safety would be acceptable to pipeline companies.

“A public inquiry into the Rainbow spill could have helped prevent those spills,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Greenpeace campaigner fro the affected community of Little Buffalo.

“The government needs to worrying about bad public relations for pipeline companies that are cutting corners and focus on how to protect the public.”

Provisions in Alberta’s environmental legislation allow for fines of up to $1 million in cases where a company knowingly allows a release or spill.

In this case, the maximum fine on each charge is only $500,000 as prosecutors are only alleging the release occurred or was permitted to happen.

Filings of Plains publicly-traded parent indicate the company has spent $70 million to clean up its mess northeast of Peace River and suffered a $21-million loss in revenue while the pipeline was shut down for three months following the disaster.

In response to a Herald query, the company issued a release saying it has received and is now evaluating the charges.

“We will be reviewing them with our counsel and the Crown, and will respond formally with our position in due course,” the release said.

Plains has been summoned to make its first appearance in court on June 17th.


Read the ERCB report on the spill

Read more: http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Plains+Midstream+charged+largest+Alberta+spill+decades/8300811/story.html#ixzz2RhIzBgN3

The Tar Sands Disaster


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IF President Obama blocks the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all, he’ll do Canada a favor.

Canada’s tar sands formations, landlocked in northern Alberta, are a giant reserve of carbon-saturated energy — a mixture of sand, clay and a viscous low-grade petroleum called bitumen. Pipelines are the best way to get this resource to market, but existing pipelines to the United States are almost full. So tar sands companies, and the Alberta and Canadian governments, are desperately searching for export routes via new pipelines.

Canadians don’t universally support construction of the pipeline. A poll by Nanos Research in February 2012 found that nearly 42 percent of Canadians were opposed. Many of us, in fact, want to see the tar sands industry wound down and eventually stopped, even though it pumps tens of billions of dollars annually into our economy.

The most obvious reason is that tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities. It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.

Also, bitumen is junk energy. A joule, or unit of energy, invested in extracting and processing bitumen returns only four to six joules in the form of crude oil. In contrast, conventional oil production in North America returns about 15 joules. Because almost all of the input energy in tar sands production comes from fossil fuels, the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

There is a less obvious but no less important reason many Canadians want the industry stopped: it is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don’t like. Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.

Countries with huge reserves of valuable natural resources often suffer from economic imbalances and boom-bust cycles. They also tend to have low-innovation economies, because lucrative resource extraction makes them fat and happy, at least when resource prices are high.

Canada is true to type. When demand for tar sands energy was strong in recent years, investment in Alberta surged. But that demand also lifted the Canadian dollar, which hurt export-oriented manufacturing in Ontario, Canada’s industrial heartland. Then, as the export price of Canadian heavy crude softened in late 2012 and early 2013, the country’s economy stalled.

Canada’s record on technical innovation, except in resource extraction, is notoriously poor. Capital and talent flow to the tar sands, while investments in manufacturing productivity and high technology elsewhere languish.

But more alarming is the way the tar sands industry is undermining Canadian democracy. By suggesting that anyone who questions the industry is unpatriotic, tar sands interest groups have made the industry the third rail of Canadian politics.

The current Conservative government holds a large majority of seats in Parliament but was elected in 2011 with only 40 percent of the vote, because three other parties split the center and left vote. The Conservative base is Alberta, the province from which Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his allies hail. As a result, Alberta has extraordinary clout in federal politics, and tar sands influence reaches deep into the federal cabinet.

Both the cabinet and the Conservative parliamentary caucus are heavily populated by politicians who deny mainstream climate science. The Conservatives have slashed financing for climate science, closed facilities that do research on climate change, told federal government climate scientists not to speak publicly about their work without approval and tried, unsuccessfully, to portray the tar sands industry as environmentally benign.

The federal minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, has attacked “environmental and other radical groups” working to stop tar sands exports. He has focused particular ire on groups getting money from outside Canada, implying that they’re acting as a fifth column for left-wing foreign interests. At a time of widespread federal budget cuts, the Conservatives have given Canada’s tax agency extra resources to audit registered charities. It’s widely assumed that environmental groups opposing the tar sands are a main target.

This coercive climate prevents Canadians from having an open conversation about the tar sands. Instead, our nation behaves like a gambler deep in the hole, repeatedly doubling down on our commitment to the industry.

President Obama rejected the pipeline last year but now must decide whether to approve a new proposal from TransCanada, the pipeline company. Saying no won’t stop tar sands development by itself, because producers are busy looking for other export routes — west across the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, east to Quebec, or south by rail to the United States. Each alternative faces political, technical or economic challenges as opponents fight to make the industry unviable.

Mr. Obama must do what’s best for America. But stopping Keystone XL would be a major step toward stopping large-scale environmental destruction, the distortion of Canada’s economy and the erosion of its democracy.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, who teaches global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is the author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.”

Oil sands toxins growing rapidly

Canada’s oil sands mining operations produce vast and fast-growing quantities of deadly substances, including mercury, heavy metals and arsenic, new data released by Environment Canada shows.

The information on pollutants sheds new light on the environmental toll exacted by Canada’s bid to extract oil from bitumen, showing in stark relief how many nasty substances are being laid on the northern Alberta landscape in the process – and how quickly those are growing.

In the past four years, the volume of arsenic and lead produced and deposited in tailings ponds by the country’s bitumen mines – run by Syncrude Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC – has increased by 26 per cent. Quantities of some other substances have increased at even faster rates.

The companies also released huge amounts of pollutants into the air last year, including 70,658 tonnes of volatile organic compounds, which can damage the function of human organs and nervous systems, and 111,661 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to acid rain.

The numbers are contained in Environment Canada’s national pollutant release inventory, which details the dangerous compounds generated by industrial Canada. New numbers published this weekend track 85 mining facilities that generate tailings and waste rock. Of those, the oil sands produce just under 50,000 tonnes of reportable substances in tailings, or 10 per cent of the total.

Metal ore mines are by far the worst, with 54 per cent, followed by iron ore mines at 25 per cent. Other mines – which include diamond, asbestos and phosphate – generate 5 per cent.

Oil sands operations, however, produced the overwhelming bulk of several dangerous substances: for example, bitumen mines generated nearly all of the Canadian total of acenaphthene, one of a bevy of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons released around Fort McMurray. Such substances can cause tumours of the lung, skin and bladder, and some are carcinogens. And their volumes are growing in north-eastern Alberta: companies generated 42 per cent more acenaphthene in 2009 than they did in 2006.

Last year, oil sands mines also produced 322 tonnes of arsenic, 651 tonnes of lead and measurable volumes of mercury, chromium, vanadium, hydrogen sulphide and cadmium.

The numbers “are just ridiculously huge,” said Justin Duncan, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice who helped prosecute the 2007 court case that forced Environment Canada to release the data.

“You’re talking hundreds of thousands of kilograms of heavy metals going into some of these tailings ponds. If one of these things bursts, it’s a catastrophic risk to the Athabasca River system.”

The Environment Canada data do not include naphthenic acids, which researchers consider the most toxic component of the effluent brew.

Yet scientists say simply knowing how much pollution is generated by the oil sands does little to show how toxic the mines’ tailings are. What’s needed is the concentration of the substances – a figure Environment Canada does not provide.

John Giesy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology, points to a potato as an example: a grocery store spud contains 600 to 700 chemicals, some of them carcinogens, but they’re in such small quantities that they’re not harmful.

“Everything is toxic. It’s the concentration that makes the poison,” he said.

The actual toxicity of oil sands effluent remains a nascent field of scientific inquiry. But some research that has been carried out by the University of Saskatchewan has found some surprising results. Some older tailings ponds, for instance, are capable of sustaining fish life. And virtually all tailings ponds can sustain invertebrate life; Julie Anderson, a PhD student, has discovered that mosquito-like midges will survive, but not grow, in tailings water.

To allow midges to grow, oil sands wastewater needs to be diluted roughly as much as the effluent from some sewage treatment plants.

And industry says it is working to improve. Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said companies will spend $1-billion in the next year to reduce tailings, “so you have less of these in the environment for any extended period of time.”

Environmentalists, however, said the Environment Canada data show the full slate of dangerous compounds emitted by the oil sands and will serve as an important industry barometer.

“More information coming to light is essential, I think, to eventually have a meaningful discussion about the unacceptable risk of these tailings ponds,” said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute.

Alberta lakes show chemical effects of oilsands, study finds

Pollutants from 50 years of oilsands production found in lake 90 km from facilities

A new study released today suggests chemicals from 50 years of oilsands production are showing up in increasing amounts in lakes in northern Alberta. And the effects are being felt much farther away than previously thought.

The joint study between scientists at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and Environment Canada looked at core samples from five lakes close to the oilsands mining and upgrading operations in Fort McMurray, Alta. They also studied samples from Namur Lake, 90 kilometres northwest.

The authors focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These are cancer-causing chemicals that are released when things are burned. They can occur naturally — from forest fires, volcanic activity and geological deposits — but burning petroleum in the production of the oilsands leaves a particular fingerprint, so the scientists were able to trace where the PAHs in the core samples came from.

A new study has found heightened levels of cancer-causing chemicals traced to Alberta’s oilsands developments in lakes surrounding Fort McMurray (lower right in this Google satellite map image), including Lake Namur, marked by the A. (Google Maps)
The study found that the levels of PAHs in all six lakes had increased anywhere from 2½ times to 23 times background levels in the early 1960s, before the start of oilsands mining in the region. The PAHs fall into the water from air pollution and are deposited in the mud over time.

One of the study’s authors, biologist John Smol from Queen’s University, says these formerly pristine northern lakes now have the same chemical composition as lakes near urban areas.

“This is an early warning indicator of what is happening, he said. “These lakes are not pollution pits by any means, but these wilderness lakes are similar to your typical urban lake.”

In response to the study, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said that the industry has been making an effort to reduce its pollution but he also says that the new federal-provincial monitoring system that was announced last year will play a big part in keeping an eye on contaminants coming from the oilsands.

“Certainly oilsands operators in the last 22 years, since 1990, have reduced their [greenhouse gases] for example and their other contaminants by close to 40 per cent. But this report reminds us of the need of continuing cumulative monitoring to be sure we don’t get into situations where cumulative levels do get past acceptable levels.”

Smol says scientists were surprised to see that even Namur Lake, the farthest away, was being affected.

“The footprint of the tarsands is much further,” he said. “Here we have effects 90 kilometres away.”

The study warns the chemical deposits will increase as oilsands production in northern Alberta triples in size in the next 25 years.

Other studies have warned of problems

The effect of the oilsands on the environment is highly controversial. There was little monitoring of the air and water in the region before the production started and there is a polarized debate about what is considered “natural” occurrence of petroleum deposits in lakes and rivers.

But other studies have suggested problems. A study in 2010 by University of Alberta scientist David Schindler discovered deformed fish in Lake Athabasca downstream from the oilsands. It caused a huge public outcry and eventually led to a federal-provincial environmental monitoring plan for the Alberta oilsands announced last February.

Monday’s study concludes there is “little doubt of the unprecedented increases of PAHs” in northeastern Alberta’s lakes, and warns of “striking contaminant increases consistent with the prevailing winds blowing across local upgrading facilities and surface-mining areas.”

The scientists also took a look at how the chemicals from the oilsands are affecting zooplankton, which are sort of the canary in the coal mine in freshwater research. Zooplankton are tiny little organisms the size of a dot that float around in water and are eaten by fish.

So far, the study shows the zooplankton are doing fine, with numbers at an increasing level. Scientists think warmer temperatures caused by climate change are actually helping them to survive the effects of the chemicals. But that may only be short-term good news.

The study warns of the “unknown” long-term ecological effects of the PAHs, as increasing amounts of the chemicals occur in freshwater lakes and are absorbed by fish, birds and up the food chain to humans.

Go here for the report itself… http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2013/01/07/pol-oilsands-alberta-lakes-pollution-pah.html