Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I


I spent the past week in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. During my trip I was told that the only person who ever asked as many questions as I did was when David Biello from Scientific American was a guest. (You can read one of David’s articles from his trip here).

I felt like I learned enough to write a book on the oil sands, so I have a great deal of information I want to share with readers in a series of articles. In these articles I will provide an overview of the oil sands, compare and contrast the different ways of processing them, discuss the environmental issues, and then discuss the particular companies that I visited on this trip — Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

I want to start this series with a 2-part discussion on the environmental issues. Generally when people think of oil sands, the environmental issues are foremost on their mind. That has always been the case with me, so most of the questions I asked during my trip related to the impact of oil sands development on the environment. This is a very contentious issue, and one in which the battle lines have been drawn.

Today’s article will focus on greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, water usage (I will cover this is much greater detail in future articles), and an organization that is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. The next article will discuss the tailings ponds, open pit mining, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.

Development Marches On

My purpose with these articles is to explain the environmental issues as clearly as I can, and correct misconceptions that exist. I believe that some have, perhaps unintentionally, misrepresented certain issues as they relate to oil sands development. To the extent that I attempt to correct the record, it should not be read as either a defense or a condemnation; it is simply an attempt to base the discussion on facts.

Development isn’t pretty, and I understand that for many there can be no compromise on this issue. There are those — perhaps even the majority — who don’t want to see any sort of development in Canada’s boreal forest. Humans have a long history of altering landscapes, and many understandably want to see remaining wild areas left alone. When we cut down forests and drain wetlands to put in housing developments, parking lots, farms, or industrial projects, we are altering landscapes, impacting wildlife, and impacting the environment. But the reality is that we live, drive, and work on altered landscapes. Our cities were carved out of pristine land. The question is whether future development will be realistically prevented, and if not how to develop in a way that minimizes impacts on the environment.

Environmental issues pertaining to the development of oil sands can be broken down into several categories: Carbon dioxide emissions, impact on air and water quality, water consumption, energy consumption, impacts on wildlife, impacts on the landscape, and general impacts on people. Of course if you believe that climate change is the most pressing concern facing mankind, then the issue of whether the other environmental issues in the oil sands are being addressed will be irrelevant to you. But we will discuss these issues nonetheless.

The Environmental NGOs

Environmentalists can be divided into two camps on the issue of oil sands. There are those who feel that the environmental issues are so severe that they want to see an end to all oil sands development. This is the sort of stance taken by organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 350.0rg, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, which aptly summed up the position of their respective camp:

The tar sands of Northern Alberta, Canada – also called oil sands – are one of the largest remaining deposits of oil in the world. Developing the tar sands has created the biggest industrial development project, the biggest capital investment project, and the biggest energy project in the world. It has also created a literal hell on earth.

Areas of wilderness the size of small countries are chewed up and replaced by a landscape of toxic lakes, open pit mines, refineries, and pipe lines. The tar sands are what unrestrained fossil fuel use and unchecked greenhouse gas emissions look like. They are pushing us towards runaway climate change.

The other camp of environmentalists are those who recognize that the Canadian government is committed to developing their resources, and the oil sands are a very big part of those plans. As such, these environmental groups recognize the reality that exists, and have attempted to work with the government and with industry to nudge development in a more environmentally responsible direction. One of these organizations is the Pembina Institute (PI), which is a national non-profit think tank that advances clean energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting, and advocacy. They have been working on environmental issues in the oil sands for over 20 years, and have more than 40 publications on their work.

Pembina Institute

Pembina Institute was compared to the Environmental Defense Fund in the US, in that both are more apt to work with industry to help resolve environmental issues. In contrast, it is doubtful that the Sierra Club or the NRDC would ever consider any development of the oil sands acceptable. But both the provincial and federal governments are committed to developing the oil sands, and they are investing a lot into seeing that happen. So an organization like PI is more likely to be effective in seeing environmental issues addressed than would an organization whose charter is to stop development. PI noted that at times they are consulting with and suing the same party at the same time in order to facilitate that changes that they advocate.

On the first full day of my visit, we attended presentations by a number of organizations, including Pembina Institute. PI’s argument was that the oil sands can be developed responsibly, but they argued that development is happening too fast and that existing environmental issues aren’t being adequately addressed. They cited a number of issues, and provided a list of changes they would like to see implemented.

Pembina Institute wants to see that:

  • Current environmental impacts are addressed
  • Science-based environmental limits are established
  • Future development occurs within science-based limits
  • Revenue from oil sands development used to transition to a clean energy economy

During Pembina Institute’s presentation, it became clear that different sides of the issue present information very differently to convey their point. For example, I had been told that only 1% of the annual flow of the Athabasca River could be withdrawn for oil sands development. That doesn’t sound like much. PI said that this is true, but that there are times of the year that the flow rate is so low that the 1% average could amount to a third of the river being withdrawn during the low flow periods. One of their proposals is to limit or suspend withdrawals during periods of low flow.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Pembina Institute stressed the urgency in limiting the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with oil sands development. As they pointed out, the oil sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of GHG emissions, and Alberta has the fastest growing emissions of all states and provinces in North America. While Alberta does put a price on GHG emissions, PI argued that the price is too low to have a meaningful impact, and as a result emissions continue to grow rapidly.

In my view, this is an area of relatively low concern compared to other issues associated with oil sands development (or other global sources of carbon emissions). The reason I believe this is that Canada is only responsible for 1.8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and oil sands are responsible for less than 10% of Canada’s emissions. Whether development proceeds at half the current pace, or twice the current pace, the very low level of overall contribution isn’t enough to make a measurable difference.

Some will argue “Every little bit counts”, and that is technically true, but if I have to allocate limited resources this one is pretty far down the list of priorities due to the very limited impact it can have. If my top priority is climate change, there are many more pressing areas than the oil sands. If my top environmental concern is the oil sands, there are more pressing environmental issues in the oil sands that can have a more immediate local impact.

Nevertheless, Alberta recognizes that they are under a spotlight on this issue, and in 2007 they began to regulate industrial GHG emissions. Existing facilities were required to immediately reduce their per unit GHG output by 12% via a choice of three compliance options. Regulated parties could physically reduce emissions, purchase accredited offsets, or contribute $15 per metric ton of emissions into a Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. The fund is responsible for investing money into initiatives and projects that support emission reduction technologies and improve Alberta’s ability to adapt to climate change. This has proven to be the cheapest compliance option for many, as the fund size has swollen to $400 million dollars.

Impact on Wildlife

On a lot of the environmental issues, I found that the reality was different from the things I had believed prior to my visit. I will get into specific examples in the next essay. In some cases, what is being presented as fact is based on outdated information, but Pembina Institute did address an issue that had never been on my radar:

Caribou in Oil Sands

Source: Pembina Institute

There were several reasons given for this sharp decline in the herd size. One was the simple fact that development has decreased the size of their habitat. But another was a surprise to me.

When you fly above the forest, you see a clearly altered landscape. There are parts of the landscape that look like a checkerboard. It looks like roads crisscrossing at what from the air appeared to be 50 or 100 meter increments. This is a result of the seismic surveys they do to determine the characteristics of the oil sands resource underground. I took some pictures with my phone, but they didn’t turn out well enough to show the details, so I managed to find a picture at the World Wildlife Fund that depicts this:

Seismic Surveys from WWF

Source: World Wildlife Fund

As I mentioned, I also observed places where the lines crisscrossed in both directions like a checkerboard. What they have found is that due to shading the trees don’t grow back very well depending on the direction of the cut. This is a problem for the caribou, because it makes it easier for the wolves to kill them. Prior to my trip I had never heard of this, but I never heard anyone dispute this information on the trip.

Some steps are being taking to address the situation. They have figured out that by making the survey lines curve back and forth, it doesn’t give the wolves the same ease of access. I noticed some of those squiggly survey lines from the air but didn’t realize their significance. The other step they mentioned is that they now know not to cut in directions that keep the sun from reaching the cut areas. This should help the trees come back faster.

One proposed step that has raised the ire of environmentalists is to cull some of the wolves:

It would be a key stop-gap measure while the natural habitat is slowly repaired over the coming decades — likely used in conjunction with other strategies such as allowing increased hunting of deer and moose, who share the caribou habitat.

Environment Canada’s research shows that 100 wolves would need to die for every four caribou calves saved. While Kent would not go through the math to say how many wolves he thinks are at risk in total, he did not disagree with experts’ estimates. “It would be an astronomical effort. It would be thousands of wolves in the end. It’s not a very appealing option,” said Stan Boutin, a caribou biologist at the University of Alberta.

Researchers at the Pembina Institute figure that about 6,000 wolves will have to be culled every five years, if a smaller project in the Little Smoky River area is any guide. There, the dwindling caribou population has been protected — successfully — by shooting wolves from the air, or poisoning them, says Simon Dyer, the institute’s caribou specialist.

Simon Dyer, incidentally, was the representative from Pembina Institute who delivered our presentation. This caribou situation isn’t totally due to the tar sands, but development has definitely exacerbated the situation. It seems to be one of those ever-present unintended consequences.

In my next article, I will provide a rundown of the other environmental issues related to the oil sands, including the infamous tailings ponds. I learned a few things there that I did not know.

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