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By Robert Rapier on Nov 11, 2013 with 16 responses

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.

Link to Original Article: Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Forrest on November 11, 2013 at 8:03 am

    I think the clever wolves have figured out how to utilize the forest lanes to better bushwhack stampeding herds. Solution….publicize to hunter and sports groups, decrease costs of permits and licenses, and even offer wolf bounty. This action would require minimum taxpayer cost. Hunter’s could easily eliminate 6,000 wolves. In Michigan we have a new hunt to decease wolf population…very popular. Also, I doubt that these roads are unique to sunshine effect of tree/bush invasion. May they have removed top soil? The roads will shortly succumb to dense invasion of plant life per the typical clear cut phenomena. So, the roads will soon be the biggest obstacle to wolf depredation. Meantime, enjoy the wolf hunt.

    The extreme environmental groups i.e. Sierra Club want to cripple standard of living and throw the world population to the likes of third world countries. They believe we need to drastically minimize standard of living for the masses. The elites whom job is to control the masses can enjoy luxury. So, central control to the rescue to force their will.

    • By Robert Rapier on November 11, 2013 at 9:57 am

      “Also, I doubt that these roads are unique to sunshine effect of tree/bush invasion.”

      I was told that it’s because it’s so far north that the sun is low on the horizon which causes quite a bit of shading.

    • By Forrest on November 12, 2013 at 8:31 am

      I read up on the caribou. Canada has 4 separate herds geographically. The Athabasca herd probably will not survive per farming, forestry, petrol, and electrical grid practices. Herd is less than 900 close to minimum 750 required for minimal sustainable. Caribou avoid upland mixed woodlands. They need treed wetlands aka peat land. They like to feed on moss, sedges, and lichen found on rocks and larches. The Athabasca area could support 600 to 5,000 if not for the large wolf population. The forestry roads, power line right of ways make life easier for wolfs hunting herd caribou. Draining wet lands per farming not good either. Alberta should promote wolf hunting per U.S. sport clubs. Require plantings to obstruct line of sight and force crooked path upon straight a ways. These could be shrubs. Good to protect habitat that is contiguous meaning a isthmus of protection between habitat.

      East west roads will not receive as much sunshine, especially with tall pines, but I believe they bulldoze top soil per normal road construction practice. Top soil is to messy and will not drain. This geographically area much wetland so drainage important to passable roads.

  2. By Russ Finley on November 11, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    The loss of an entire population of caribou …not good.

  3. By Bruce LeGros on November 12, 2013 at 11:47 am

    This is shocking information that people need to take more seriously. Things like the straight lines cut into the landscape having such an effect on the population of caribou. People always think of the obvious environmental effects, but things like this are a real eye opener.

  4. By Derek on November 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    While tar sands may only account for 1.8% of current CO2 emission rates, it’s the cumulative emissions that matter. We’re already set to warm the planet past 2C if we burn all our reserves of conventional oil. If extra heavy, oil shale, deep water, and arctic oil are added, we are toast – even if it takes 50 years to burn through it all. By drawing the line on these low-grade resources, we can at least make a commitment towards more moderate warming. It sends the signal that if a developed nation can commit to leaving oil in the ground, then others can find a way to do it, too. Sort of like nuclear disarmament.

    • By JavelinaTex on November 12, 2013 at 2:49 pm

      It is 0.18% – 1.8% is all of Canada and 10% of Canada’s is Oil Sands.

    • By Optimist on November 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Won’t happen – the problem is that drivers think they are entitled to cheap gas. So offering a choice between cheap gas and a long term commitment will only lead to the same choice as has been made repeatedly in the past.

      It’s the same reason eight US presidents failed to deliver on “energy independence”. All wanted cheap gas instead. Now that market forces produced $100/bbl, energy independence is slowly becoming a reality, no thanks to any politician.

      Of course, $100/bbl is also what gave us tar sands…

    • By Poechewe on November 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      An added factor is that business as usual means the 1.8% will continue to grow rapidly in the next 20-50 years.

      • By Robert Rapier on November 17, 2013 at 5:30 pm

        I wouldn’t be so sure about that. 20 years ago Canada’s share was 2.1%. So it’s been shrinking as a percentage of the total.

  5. By Stuart Jensen on November 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Any chance of getting an email sent to you? I’ve spent some time looking for an inbox that likely would pass on a request with no results. A brief message to anotherhoop at Yahoo with the info would do the trick.

  6. By ben on November 13, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Like it or not, in a market economy the consumer is king. For those who disdain the cumulative (environmental) effects of consumer demand and plead a “build it and they will come” viewpoint on an softer path to new energy supplies, some might argue that you can’t both accept and reject the principle of Say’s Law in the same breath. Either market forces
    are either the cornerstone of economic development (warts and all) or they are otherwise wholly deficient to the daunting challenges at hand. And, seemingly, never the twain shall meet. It may be of little reassurance to learn of similar tension is becoming a bone for the chewing in places like Beijing.

    The issue of “to dig” or “not to dig” may be the question of the hour for the Western Canadians let alone those protesting the Keystone Pipeline, but it’s all but a settled question among the lesser-developed economies for the next decade. If you doubt it, well, take a look at the smog index in China’s largest cities and what do we hear out of the “more enlightened” party leadership in the Chinese capital? We witness hand-wringing as to whether 7 or 7.5% annual GDP growth is a more prudent sustainability goal. Sustainable what? Certainly we’re not talking about the health risks associated with the demise of clean air to breath or water to drink are we? No, the really big decision about economic growth (“good” or “bad”) is very much a foregone conclusion. So, the question, “and how about the west?” is one we harangue over while the biggest drivers of burgeoning global demand for -greater energy supplies already have their trajectory. We may gnash our teeth and protest all we want, the Asian Tiger will take its kill and feed under the lone tree despite remonstrances from the distant edges of the field. This is, I think, at the heart of the point that Mr. Rapier has been impressing upon us (or at least trying) for nearly a decade.

    Do we have choices to make about our leadership? Indeed we do. But our decisions shouldn’t signal a defeatist attitude about how our less-than-stellar example of the past century disqualifies us from a role in shaping a forward-looking agenda. Yet, we must understand that we can only achieve credibility by acknowledging that the developing world has desperate need for growth, even as we put or shoulder to the plow in aiming to (re)calibrate a better trajectory through international cooperation based on mutual interests. This is, admittedly, much easier said than done.

    Thanks for the initial report on our neighbors to the north, RR. You continue to offer valuable (and balanced) insights.


  7. By Forrest on November 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Read the IEA World Energy Outlook Executive Summary Very interesting and informative. Some thoughts; the U.S. is extremely blessed for energy future. Were doing the right things and thank goodness for Canadian Oil Sands, shale oil, and drilling technology. What jumps out of report and per R.R. info; we need to devise, develop, technology for China and India to affect CO2 increase. We need to shift to sensibilities to developing economies needs upon energy. Not very important to delay pipeline construction or slow oil sand development. CO2 pollution is global problem we need to shift invention, technology, to best return. Forget the complex restricting and expensive EPA regulations instead lean to the much larger open competitive market of public invention. Develop simple to operate, smaller, and low cost safe nuclear. Coal will be utilized by developing countries. We need to get over are bias and seek technology that will make the fuel less harmful. The trend lines for solar, wind, hydro, and bio fuel all look good. Natural gas extremely beneficial, just to expensive to ship (my thinking). We need to stop subsidizing consumer costs upon energy. Convince international community to do likewise. We need to move the energy sector along by vetting the federal regs to most useful. Eliminate the regs that stifle invention and exploration i.e. safety regs of nuclear developed more for political desire. Adapt Brazil agenda for energy. Increase efficiency and conservation for consumers, while maximizing biofuel, hydro, and wind power. Our coal, nuclear, solar, and geo thermal good to push, as well. The biggest asset is natural gas. To maximize this resource we need to put the Picken’s plan on steroids. Since we have so much and very expensive to ship, the best benefit to nation is to utilize domestically. Oil we can ship/export. For example we should not be using any heating oil and transportation sector should be bio fuel or compressed natural gas. Base line electric power should utilize nuclear, coal, hydro, and geo thermal. Utilize natural gas only to balance out the solar and wind disturbance.

  8. By Bob on November 14, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    It’s really worth reading Farley Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf” and/or watching the film. It’s based on the true story of a Canadian Gov. study on why the Caribou population was declining in the ’50′s-60′s. They blamed the wolves, but it turns out the wolves were eating a lot of mice. It’s one of my favourite movies. A few of my favourite parts of the movie are where his inital instructions are to canoe down the river (it’s -20C and it’s frozen for a few more months), the plane almost crashing due to the beer he loaded the night before, where he is marking his territory after drinking tea for a day and where he is explaining the gas mask (for studying scat) usage to a native. (good idea).

  9. By wstephens on November 15, 2013 at 7:09 am

    What is the temperature of the underground sands before the heating? (just curious)

    I was surprised at how little natural gas consumption was claimed by one tar sands company (per barrel of end product). What do you gather is the amount of consumption?

  10. By Ol' Hippy on November 9, 2018 at 2:59 pm

    So I’m late finding this piece. I guess that genocide of the Caribou is worth a few extra Sunday drives with the new and bigger fancy pickup trucks. Then the mention of culling Wolves for the sake of the Caribou makes the weekend spins worth it. Gads. Can’t they see the 6th Mass Extinction Event there contributing to? That crap should stay in the ground and let Earth tend to her precious children. Crap like this just makes me ill.

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