The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) has issued a new report on the oil sands. In general, it claims that the water contamination issues associated with oil sands projects have been overstated: “[T]here is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands developments reaching downstream communities at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer cases in the local population.” At the same time, it concludes that there are serious issues with the reclamation of land damaged by oil sands operations, and that there is no obvious way to make oil sands exploitation compatible with meeting Canada’s climate targets.
Here is what the report concludes, when it comes to climate change:
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the oil sands (Section 6) are a major environmental issue. Although substantial progress has been made in reducing the quantity of GHG emitted per unit of production (emissions intensity) by the oil sands industry, and future reductions in emissions intensity will occur, the rapid pace of growth in bitumen production means direct oil sands GHG emissions have grown substantially. With current and projected developments, direct GHG emissions will continue to grow at a time when Canada has accepted targets for substantial overall reductions in response to the Copenhagen Accord. Technological solutions, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), will not be sufficient to eliminate projected GHG emission increases from oil sands operations over the next decade.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is appealing from the perspective of GHG policy as a whole but does not appear to be very feasible for oil sands production in general and in-situ in particular. Bitumen upgrading could provide a more promising source of applications for CCS. Substantial questions remain to be answered about the feasibility and reliability of CCS in all applications.
I have pointed out before how CCS is not the silver bullet the oil sands industry likes to imagine it being. Indeed, since most of the emissions associated with the oil sands arise when the fuels are ultimately burned in vehicles, using CCS at the production facilities is no alternative to leaving the stuff underground, from the perspective of maintaining climate stability.
If accurate, some of the claims in the report seem to worsen the fundamental conflict of interest associated with highly climate-damaging activities. Things like pollution in the Athabasca River affect people who are alive today and can make a fuss. Most of those who will be affected by the greenhouse gases released by oil sands extraction and use are silent and defenceless.