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Toxic truths about Canada’s oil sands

Open pit mining destroys the boreal forest and although the government requires companies to restore the land

Gulf News

I recently received an email from a Canadian friend pointing to the environmental impact of producing oil from the Athabasca oil sands in Canada.

The email pointed out that extracting "bitumen from the earth, leaves behind a lake of toxic slurry, bigger than any scenic lake to be found in Europe", adding that "the violent scar of environmental devastation in Alberta's land can be easily seen from outer space".

My first impression was that these statements may be exaggerations, but looking into the matter turned out to be a real eye-opener. You can see the development site on Google Earth easily and the accompanying pictures and films on YouTube are no less alarming.

As an oilman, I used to be concerned with about a fraction of what I is discovered going on in Canada. The environmental records in the plants I was associated with in Iraq and indeed across the Iraqi oil industry were not exactly what we desired and we always went after improvement. Yet in comparison with oil sands, we can rest assured of our track record.

Significant share

Canada extracts about half of its crude oil from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta given the declining output in conventional oilfields. Canada's production of this unconventional oil in now about 1.5 million barrels per day and various forecasts suggest that this may reach five million barrels by 2035. This growth will also increase rnvironmental and logistical problems.

Oil sands consist of a mixture of crude bitumen, sand, clay minerals, and water. Using surface mining, these sands is crushed and mixed with hot water before extraction of the bitumen, which is then processed into synthetic crude oil. Another process is steam injection to melt the bitumen and pump it off the ground.

Although they were discovered and assessed in 1848 and their method of extraction was developed in 1926, commercial production was only made in 1967 with 30,000 barrels per day of synthetic crude oil. But the low price of oil prevented further development until 1978 and again stalled due to low oil prices until 2003 when production really took off sharply to reach 750,000 barrels a day by 2005.

Surveying relevant literature will indicate that government and industry measures to minimise environmental and health risks are inadequate, as the critics contend.

Open pit mining destroys the boreal forest and although the government requires companies to restore the land to "equivalent land capability", this is easier said than done. Some companies claim that they have restored 22 per cent of the land while other sources dispute such claims and point to 0.2 per cent only.

Resource depletion

Water is another problem because "to produce one cubic metre of synthetic crude requires about 2-4.5 cubic metres of water".

And "oil sands development contributes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel other metal elements toxic at low concentrations to the tributaries and rivers of the Athabasca." The massive lagoons filled with this toxic waste water may be leaking substantial quantities into rivers and groundwater.

At the same time, the production requires "huge" amounts of natural gas or about 700 to 1,200 cubic feet to produce one barrel of bitumen depending on the process. You can see what a tax this is when a barrel of oil is equivalent to 6,000 cubic feet of gas. Therefore, a study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (Cera) estimated that production from Canada's oil sands emits "about 5 per cent to 15 per cent more carbon dioxide, over the ‘well-to-wheels' lifetime analysis of the fuel, than average crude oil". The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate even goes as high as 20 per cent.

Emissions challenge

This is perhaps why Canada is taking a new stand in climate change negotiations than it used to before. It is unlikely for Canada to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol when it agreed to reduce, by this year, its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 per cent with respect to 1990.

No wonder then that the Environmental Defence Fund calls oil sands development the "world's most destructive project". All this is justified by the profits made due to the rise in oil prices and the demands by the US to increase the ‘security of supply' even though the cost of investment and production in other areas are a fraction of the costs in Canada.


The author is the former head of Energy Studies Department in the Opec Secretariat based in Vienna.