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By Robert Rapier on Nov 22, 2013 with 15 responses

Oil Sands and the Environment – Part II


Today I continue coverage of my recent visit to the Athabasca oil sands near 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. I will be covering multiple aspects of oil sands production in a series of posts.

In last week’s post — Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I — I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. Today’s article will discuss the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.

Tailings Ponds

There are two primary ways of extracting bitumen from the oil sands. In situ production involves injecting steam into the ground to heat up the bitumen which is then pumped out of the ground. Surface mining is done when the resource is fairly close to the surface. During my trip we visited one in situ producer – Cenovus Energy – and one surface miner – Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL). These methods will be discussed in greater detail in next week’s post.

Most of the oil sands production to date has come from surface mining, and this is the technique that has attracted the most environmental criticism. During the processing of oil sands from surface mining, a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual oil (less than 10 percent of the bitumen contained in the ore is left after processing) is transported to an engineered pond called a tailings pond where additional settling occurs. These infamous tailings ponds immediately come to mind when discussing the environmental impact of oil sands development.

Suncor Tailings Pond

Suncor site and tailings ponds at Fort McMurray. Source: Bruce Edwards,

One thing I learned is that these ponds are often built from the pit that was created from digging out the ore. So after one portion has been mined, a tailings pond can be created that will ultimately be backfilled and reclaimed. This gave me an image of an operation that pulls oily sand from the ground, extracts most of the oil, and then puts the relatively clean sand back in the ground. So the stuff that is going back into the pit is the stuff that came out of the pit — there’s just a lot less of it after processing. In fact, one of our tour guides joked that they were simply cleaning up an oil spill that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago.

So why are the tailings ponds so controversial? A couple of reasons. One is that they are one of the most visible markers of an open pit bitumen mining operation. Most people don’t like the idea of a body of water – even one that is man-made and not permanent – that holds toxic waste. There have been incidents in which waterfowl landed on these ponds and died in large numbers. (Syncrude was fined $3 million for the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on a tailings pond in 2008). As a result, companies have invested in bird deterrent systems. One of those was clearly visible on my visit – scarecrows made to look like workers surrounding the ponds. They also have air horns and air cannons that go off at regular intervals to keep wildlife away.

There is of course also the fear that the tailings ponds can contaminate waterways. I asked a number of questions on this topic. I was told that there is extensive groundwater monitoring around the tailings ponds (although the data are not easily accessible by the public), and that they do not connect to any public waterways. The ponds are lined with a natural substrate that is semipermeable, and they are designed to withstand a 100 year flood. But “semipermeable” implies that some water does leech out of the ponds.

However, the recent leak of a billion liters of water from a coal containment pond into the Athabasca River is a local reminder that things don’t always go according to plan. Darin Barter, a spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator provided a quote that will give anyone concerned about the tailings ponds reason for pause: “I haven’t seen this happen. Coal mine incidents and pit leak incidents are really rare. I was surprised this could happen.”

That really sums up the fears of many when it comes to the tailings ponds. Are they really safe from wildlife, and could they contaminate the waterways? Industry and the government say they are doing all they can to minimize the risks. But we are all aware of major environment incidents where the response was “I didn’t know this could happen.” That’s essentially what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, and that’s essentially why people are concerned about the potential consequences of the tailings ponds.

Ultimately, all tailings ponds are required by law to be reclaimed (something else I didn’t know) after a specific lifetime. Industry is required by law to set aside money to assure this is done. Since tailings ponds can be used in the mine operation for up to 40 years, most of them have yet to be recycled.

So far only one tailings pond has been reclaimed. In 2010, Suncor completed surface reclamation of the 220-hectare Wapisiw Lookout, formerly known as Pond 1. For the next 20 years Suncor must maintain and monitor progress at the site, including the growth of 630,000 shrubs and trees planted in 2010. Regular oil, water, and vegetation monitoring will be done to make sure the site returns to a self-sustaining ecosystem.

I was curious about how reclamation is done, so I asked CNRL on our visit there. The way they do reclamation is to figure out how much the asset is worth, and how much reclamation should cost. The ratio could be $30 billion asset value to $1 billion in reclamation costs. The government then monitors and makes sure they are spending the money as the asset is produced, and complying with their requirements. During the last 10 years of the mining lifetime, they are required to post a financial bond.

Water Consumption

One of the issues that is frequently raised with respect to oil sands production is the availability of fresh water. Bitumen production from surface mines requires hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand. In situ production requires steam underground to heat up the bitumen so that it can be pumped. Both processes require fresh water, but both processes rely primarily on recycled water.

The water from the top 10 feet or so of the tailings ponds is recycled back to the process as the tailings settle. Recycled water makes up 80 percent or more of the water requirements for a bitumen mining operation. Some water is lost to the environment during processing, and so makeup water – mostly from the Athabasca River – is consumed. As I mentioned last week, up to 1 percent of the average annual flow of the river can be used for oil sands processing, but this percentage may be higher during seasonal periods of low flow. Pembina Institute is advocating for changes that would restrict withdrawals during the low flow periods.

Industry is anticipating such changes. For example, CNRL has a supply pond that could enable them to run for a month with no withdrawals from the river. Further, their high level of recycle means that they typically don’t use close to the amount they are allotted. In 2010, for example, they only used a quarter of the 79.3 million cubic meters of water that they were permitted to withdraw.

During one of the presentations, we were given a range of 2-4 barrels of freshwater makeup per barrel of bitumen processed via surface mining, with an industry average of 2.2 barrels per barrel.

Water consumption for in situ operations is even lower. The vast majority of the water used to produce steam is from saline ground water unsuitable for drinking, and more than 90 percent of it is recycled. On average, 0.4 barrels of fresh water are used for every barrel of bitumen produced. Cenovus reported that in their Christina Lake facility, only 0.07 barrels of fresh water are required to produce one barrel of oil (less than 5 percent of the total water used).

First Nations Impacts

One of my goals on the trip was to better understand the impact of oil sands development on the people living in the area. In particular, I had heard a lot about negative impacts to First Nations groups as a result of the oil sands development. We had been scheduled to meet with a group on our trip, but that meeting was canceled for some reason. So, I had to rely on a lot of outside research for this section.

Trying to determine the impact on the indigenous people reminded me of when I lived in Germany, and people would ask “What are Germans like?” That’s sort of like asking “What’s an American like?” Well, are we talking about someone living in Texas, New York, or Minnesota? Is the person rich or poor? Are they religious? What is their political affiliation? It turns out that Germans, Australians, South Africans – and every nation in the world – has people that shouldn’t be stereotyped. So I would say “Germans are like everyone else. They are all different.”

I tell that story because that’s the impression I developed after trying to determine the impact of oil sands development on First Nations groups. Some hate it. Some love it. Many work for the companies we visited. Development has brought wealth to some. On the other hand, some don’t like the infringement on their historical lands, and they don’t like the environmental implications. Certain tribes would favor development, and certain tribes wouldn’t. And within those tribes will be individuals who feel differently about it. Some of that will come down to whether there is a sufficient financial benefit relative to the downside. It is not that different from other energy projects. There are always people on both sides of the issue. And if you are being impacted negatively but not compensated financially, you are going to be against.

My point is that it isn’t a black and white issue. So what I will do is just explain what some First Nations groups oppose. In an environmental report on Shell Canada Ltd.’s application to expand its Jackpine oil sands mine, the Mikisew Cree expressed the concern “that the governments of Alberta and Canada were failing to uphold the honor of the Crown in their approach to the assessment and management of cumulative effects in the Lower Athabasca Region.” One specific issue that was mentioned was whether reclaimed land would ever be suitable for traditional land use.

Development in some cases has bordered First Nations’ lands, and of course it is possible for environmental impacts to extend beyond the borders of an oil sands lease. For example, while the Athabasca River has pollutants from natural seepage of oil sands into the river, higher concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) and heavy metals like Hg and Pb have been measured downstream of oil sands developments. These levels are still within guidelines for drinking water, but the levels are statistically higher. This is a river where people obtain their drinking water, and they do eat fish from this river.

In fairness, another study found no increase in PACs in the water resulting from oil sands development. This seeming contradiction is discussed here.

So the message is “There may be a bit more pollution in your water, but it’s still OK to drink from it.” It is not surprising that this is an unsatisfactory answer for most people that are potentially affected.

In my next article, I will move on to the actual processing of the oil sands.

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

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

  1. By Forrest on November 22, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Thank you for the insider view and analysis of the oil sands development, information the public never attains per typical media outlets. It’s sad to think of our democratic nation no different, meaning the U.S. suffers equally as most nations with poor public information. A new attempt to lower the information bar, the desire of some partisans to regulate news analysis per college degree of Journalism. You see untethered information and analysis is dangerous especially per the broadcast ability of the internet, but I digress. While reading your article, made me realize the value of good information. Most news outlets love to sensationalize information per their long held biases and normally get fame and rewards for doing so. The point of land reclamation of the open pit reservoirs. I have noticed the craft of native landscaping very capable to reestablish the flora. They usually improve nature, making it more productive for wildlife. The settling ponds probably have much clay sediment. This would particularly minimize water migration. Also, you made the point that what came from the ground returned to the ground. Environmentalist like to jack up a story with identifying contaminates. The reader thinks the human activity is generating industrial waste (just an EPA ID of unwanted product i.e. warm water). For example an oil spill per the newspaper reads like a nuclear fuel dump vs something nature made.

  2. By JMin2020 on November 22, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Thanks for the articles Robert. I can really appreciate the honest and neutral position you maintain in this series of articles. I look forward to the next installment. It is my sincere hope that the Tar Sands extraction sites are fully restored to their origional states.

  3. By mk1313 on November 22, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Let’s see, ignore the poisoning of the watershed, ignore the air quality issues, ignore the onging surface leakage, ignore the political clout that sends the PM a wish list removing waterway protections, ignore increased cancer rates. Hardly what I would call either a complete or an unbiased review of TAR sands. Oil, by the way, is a liquid. Until it’s diluted or heated this stuff isn’t, it is TAR! And none of that takes into account the environmental impacts of shipping or burning the crap!

    • By Robert Rapier on November 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      You are the first person I have heard mention increased cancer rates. Do you have a link? I would be also curious if you have an example of what you would consider an “unbiased review.”

      • By mk1313 on November 22, 2013 at 8:44 pm

        One that looks at the whole, not the just the propogandist BS put out by fossil fuel companies such as buying in to the “Oil Sands” spin. It is not oil! As for cancers look at the studies cited in

        Any idea how much poison is in the Syncrude tailings dam or the potential for Love Canal type future, or perhaps should the dam fail the potential hazard to the environment a la the Ajka tailings dam failure.

        And so on. Thanks for covering up what is an ongoing environmental disaster.

        • By Robert Rapier on November 22, 2013 at 8:55 pm

          “One that looks at the whole, not the just the propogandist BS put out by fossil fuel companies such as buying in to the “Oil Sands” spin.”

          I think I have been pretty balanced, and have called attention to a number of environmental issues. (I discussed the greenhouse gas emissions in last week’s article, as well as impacts to wildlife). Most have felt that my articles have been pretty balanced.

          But I don’t think you are actually looking for something that most people would consider balanced. For example, I clicked on your first link. Suzuki mentions the higher levels of carcinogens, which he says “it follows that more carcinogens in the environment could mean a higher risk of developing cancer for the exposed population.” I mentioned those higher levels in my article. A pro-oil propaganda piece would not have done that. An anti-oil propaganda piece might have extrapolated Suzuki’s comments into “increased cancer rates.” That’s not what he said. He is saying “It could happen in the future.” It also might not happen for a number of reasons, so if I am going to discuss higher cancer rates what I would need is evidence of higher cancer rates.

          So it sounds to me like “balanced” for you would have really been an anti-oil propaganda piece instead of a balanced look at what I actually saw, and the questions I got answered.

          • By Rolf Westgard on November 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

            Good balanced article, Robert.

          • By Ryan Daley on December 2, 2013 at 4:43 am

            Great article Robert. I learned a lot and think it was very balanced.

  4. By Forrest on November 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

    The David Suzuki link appears appears to be balanced. He describes contaminants and the difficulty to know if such pollutants affecting health. Also, he goes on to say the companies should do all they can to minimize and contain. O.k. who can argue with that? The other links offer diseased fish downstream watershed of oil sand or tar sands (like tar congers up emotions of cigarettes, lol). They do mention a percentage of fish naturally diseased and difficult to ascertain if higher than normal. Most readers do not understand the modern sensor technology extremely sensitive to parts per billion. They can detect elements and compounds for example what we call pollution anywhere on earth. You and everyone else is currently breathing lead, silica, voc’s, arsenic, carcinogens, fresh air, and someones tailpipe exhaust, and tobacco smoke. Also, we have natural toxins floating about and even natural nuclear radiation. I remember the quick claim that GMO corn was killing the honey bees. Impressive correlations per motivated haters of GMO technology. It took years to determine a particular mite devastating hives, but mission accomplish to scare citizens and perpetuate biases. Around here citizens couldn’t understand when Embridge reported oil cleanup spill has achieved river contaminant below naturally occurring. Politicians and the anti petrol group urging EPA to demand all the oil removed. So the company is tearing apart the river for no apparent good other than to spend money and decrease profit of oil. Also, NPR can report “the cleanup is still not finished”.

  5. By Russ Finley on November 23, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Do you have a feel for how many square miles of natural habitat has been converted to facilities (ponds, mines, roads, etc.)?

    • By Robert Rapier on November 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      They cite the number for the ponds, and it’s 70 or 80 square miles. For the rest of the facilities, I didn’t see a number cited. I think in next week’s article I will break down the amount of area that has been disturbed to date. I wrote something for Investing Daily that got into that, and I will publish some of that here for next week’s article.

  6. By Brian on November 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I worry also about water demand. Please evaluate the Great Inland Delta … There’s a tremendous risk.

    • By Tom G. on November 25, 2013 at 11:35 am

      Brian: The provided link does not work for me. Is there something missing in the web address?
      Thank you

  7. By ben on November 29, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    There’s always a bottom line to every story and this was isno different; some are going to benefit from the production and sale of tar sands. Canada is in no mood to accept anything other than the free exercise of global commerce. The issue is simply one of whether this energy source migrates west, south or east. Most are betting on it heading south with the west coast serving as lesser option (damn those Rockies and lack of refining). One thing is certain, the tar sands are under aggressive development and there is little looking back absent a price collapse in the oil market. It’s fair to say that’s little more than wishful thinking for those seeking such a scenario.
    As mentioned here last spring and summer, the prospects of $80 +/- WTI is a distinct possibility in the coming months, while floor here remains much higher than some might like and it will remain quite sensitive to any signs of a rebound in economic growth (though growth remains in peril given oppressive debt-service requirements and the very real specter of long-run fiscal drag). Efforts on the part of the central banks will be found wanting, as the chickens continue to wander in for the roost. Financial repression remains the only card left to play and it looks like little more than
    a pair of fives–if not jokers;)
    Thanks for the objective treatment of the facts, R. “Sgt. Friday” Rapier.

  8. By Russ Finley on December 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I Just found the following blurb on a Sierra Club donation solicitation in my inbox:

    Worst of all is the Keystone XL pipeline. Building this toxic fuel funnel would be the single worst disaster for our environment in our recent history. Not only would it intensify man-made climate change, it would devastate wild spaces and threaten wildlife – wolves in Canada are already being hunted by air and brutally poisoned to make way for a leaky pipeline of tar sands sludge.

    I can understand why they oppose the pipeline, but do they have to make stuff up? Why would someone kill wolves to make way for a pipeline? The internet can be such a frustrating place. The truth is whatever you want it to be. Human nature I suppose …

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