The Royal Society’s oil sands expert panel

by Milan on December 18, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Oil sands, Water pollution

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.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Citizen scientists

Published online 24 November 2010

Scientists should speak out on the environmental effects of ventures such as tar-sands mining.

Canada’s international reputation as a green and gentle nation has long been a matter of national pride. But is that reputation deserved? Canada’s actions on environmental issues — from ignoring Kyoto Protocol targets to obstructing progress at United Nations climate-change talks — are increasingly raising eyebrows, both at home and abroad. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this reality gap than Canada’s determination to mine its tar sands at a frantic rate. The sands are a dirty source of oil. They require more energy for oil extraction than do conventional reserves, producing extra greenhouse-gas emissions. The industry has torn up vast swathes of landscape, created toxic ponds of waste and released pollutants into waterways. Where such issues justify pressure for action, it is crucial that scientists such as David Schindler (see page 499) highlight them.

It would be unrealistic to expect that we could harvest fossil fuels or minerals without an effect on the environment. No form of mining is clean. But the fast development of the tar sands, combined with weak regulation and a lack of effective watchdogs, have made them an environmentalist’s nightmare. Both independent scientists and mining companies are already taking steps to mitigate the sands’ environmental impact. The industry reduced extraction emissions per barrel by an average of about 30% in the 1990s. And, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, work is under way to find a way to extract oil from tar sands without using vast quantities of water, effectively replacing the current method with a chemical ‘dry cleaning’ process. Such a technique, if feasible, would reduce pressure on the local rivers as a water supply and would dampen the continual expansion of toxic tailings ponds.

Companies are unlikely to invest in expensive remedial solutions unless they are forced to do so by environmental regulations, some of which are already in place. The provincial Albertan government is seemingly more progressive than the federal Canadian government in its climate-change plan. Large companies have had to meet a one-time 12% reduction in their emissions per barrel from 2007 onwards, with those that have been unable to comply paying Can$15 (US$14.7) per tonne on their extra emissions, making the province one of only a few places in the world with a mandated price on carbon. There are rules insisting that companies have plans to reclaim lands used and to deal with tailings ponds. And there are fines for non-compliance. The oil company Syncrude was last month fined Can$3.2 million for the deaths of 1,600 birds that landed in its tailings ponds — the biggest environmental fine in Alberta’s history. From this, Can$1.3 million will go to the University of Alberta for research into better bird deterrents, which the company will be obliged to enact.

Tristan December 20, 2010 at 5:36 pm

It’s worth noting that polluting ecosystems will also harm those who might have lived off those lands into the indefinite future.

Milan December 20, 2010 at 11:03 pm

The environmental longevity of different pollutants varies considerably, and is subject to lots of factors. For instance, some toxins bioaccumulate.

Working out exactly how long each significant pollutant involved in oil sands extraction persists in the environment would be quite a task. Still, I doubt that many (or even any) will continue to do harm for as long as the CO2 inevitably produced through the burning of oil sands hydrocarbons.

Tristan January 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I don’t understand why you insist on speaking dismissively about the effects of non-CO2 pollutants, even when they give us the same directives for acting as the carbon implications. Responding to environmental problems is not always a debate between those more concerned with CO2, and those more concerned with the extermination of native communities through the poisoning of their hunting territory – in this case the goal is the same: restrict, slow down, and shut down the tar sands. There is no need to work out how long each significant pollutant involved in oilsands extraction will persist to know the devastating effects poisoning the ecosystem has on native communities – or to have a good idea about the longterm cultural devastation which results from communities having to chose between their traditional relationship with the land and cancer. The science is essential, as is the analysis of the politics of science. But for the facts on the ground, you can learn a lot just by listening to the people directly affected by the contamination of ecosystems. I wrote about such an experience of listening here:

Tristan January 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm

The science is clearly not the only important driving force in getting the tar sands shut down – wikileaks has revealed that the Conservatives are willing to restrict tar sands growth not for scientific reasons, but because of the damage it does to Canada’s green reputation. What’s essential are not the facts, but the values – and convergent values, such as the multitude of different environmental effects of the tar sands, are essential to tarnishing Canada’s green reputation.

Milan January 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm

But for the facts on the ground, you can learn a lot just by listening to the people directly affected by the contamination of ecosystems.

Personal experience is no substitute for rigorous analysis, especially when it comes to things that people have strong emotions about.

Certainly, water contamination is one reason to be concerned about oil sands extraction. That being said, the extent of the problem can best be determined through scientific analysis.

Milan January 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

wikileaks has revealed that the Conservatives are willing to restrict tar sands growth not for scientific reasons, but because of the damage it does to Canada’s green reputation

I haven’t read about this. Do you have a link to more information?

Tristan January 5, 2011 at 4:24 pm

“Personal experience is no substitute for rigorous analysis, especially when it comes to things that people have strong emotions about.”

There is no such thing as independent scientific analysis – every area where analysis could be rigorous is also an area where corporations can through funding and threats prevent or slow the accumulation of rigorous science. That said, there are analyses which already demonstrate strongly elevated rates of cancer among those who live off contaminated land, but it is essential to understand the context of these analyses and how it is similar to attempting to prove smoking causes cancer or accumulation of coal dust in the lungs causes their degradation. The non-neutrality of the political and economic context of scientific investigation should be easy to grasp for someone who’s studied the relation of science and politics for so long.

And while I agree that rigorous science is the best way to prove something, it is not acceptable to reject outright the knowledge of elders, those who have observed the land and the animals for generations and see drastic changes in the colour and smell of moose flesh and in the number of tumours in fish. This knowledge should be followed up on scientifically, not dismissed, ignored and denied on the grounds that it is not certain. There is a difference between a commitment to scientific rigour, and using the standard of scientific rigour to dismiss justice claims made by oppressed peoples who cannot afford to privately fund rigorous science.

. January 5, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Prentice was ready to curb oilsands: WikiLeaks

“Former environment minister Jim Prentice told U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson that he was prepared to step in and impose tougher regulations on the oilsands if the industry damaged Canada’s green reputation, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

“[Prentice] noted that if industry did not take voluntary measures and if the provincial government did not set more stringent regulations, he would step in and press federal environmental legislation,” according to the cable, apparently written by Jacobson.

Prentice was concerned about the impact the oilsands would have on Canada’s green reputation, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

According to the cable, which recounts a meeting between Jacobson and Prentice on Nov. 5, 2009, Prentice expressed his concerns about the media focus on the oilsands and the possible impact on Canada’s green standing on the world stage.

Prentice said that during a trip to Norway, he was shocked at the public’s sentiment toward the oilsands and the debate about whether or not to invest in “dirty oil,” the cable says.

The cable indicates that Prentice felt the federal government was “too slow” to react to the dirty oil label and “and failed to grasp the magnitude of the situation.”

“At the end of the day, Prentice wants Canada to be billed as the most environmentally conscious energy superpower,” according to the cable.”

Tristan January 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Concerning the Prentice/Wikileaks story, there is nothing surprising about the logic employed. Governments are concerned with short-term implications because all their incentives are short-term. If a policy threatens their international reputation in such a way that it could curb foreign investment, their reputation or image to “invisible parliament” of investors suddenly becomes a major problem to be dealt with. Investment in capitalist countries is the primary form of the allocation of capital – stimulus is seen as a secondary mechanism (the reverse of state-capitalist command economies), and since governments seem to be elected primarily on their “ability” to create economic growth, it’s perfectly understandable why Canada’s reputation to foreign investors is of more importance than the scientifically predictable long term implications of policy.

Tristan January 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

The reason we need political reform, not just a new government, is that if the Liberals are elected we will see exactly the same sets of incentives, producing nearly the same policies.

. January 5, 2011 at 9:58 pm

UK taxpayers are funding the destruction of my homeland: The tar sands industry is trampling on the rights of Canada’s First Nation communities. And RBS is among its biggest backers

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger,
Sunday 29 November 2009 16.00 GMT

The treaty signed between Queen Victoria and my ancestors in 1899 covered an area of northern Canada three-and-a-half times the size of Great Britain. It guaranteed that my people “shall have right to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract”. Today, however, hunters stay away from the few moose that still roam the forests near our small community, afraid that the meat will poison their children. I remember drinking from the lake as a small child. Now, when I return to my homeland with my own young daughter, we’re told not to swim because it’s too toxic. This is the legacy of Canada’s tar sands development in a place where my people have always lived and which is home to dozens of other First Nation communities living downstream from the sprawling tar pits. And while our people may be among the first to pay for the excesses of squeezing our earth for its last drops of oil, we won’t be the last.

Global financiers betting on the tar sands are killing our last, best chance at maintaining a livable climate for everybody. As cheaper, more conventional global crude oil supplies continue to decline, an unprecedented glut of investment dollars is sloshing into the tar sands. Industry analysts expect more than $100bn (£60bn) to be invested in doubling tar sands oil production by 2020.

Fully developing these sticky oil deposits will require clear-cutting or degrading largely intact primary boreal forests covering an area the size of England. Extracting and processing just one barrel of tar sands oil requires the energy equivalent of three barrels of natural gas and two to four barrels of water, and results in a carbon footprint up to five times greater than conventional crude.

So who’s behind the unprecedented expansion in the tar sands? Who are the ruthless business people throwing money at the dead-end industry poisoning our planet and trampling the rights of my community and others? Look no further than the mirror. UK taxpayers can count themselves among the biggest financial backers of the planet’s most polluting industrial projects due to their majority ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Since UK taxpayers bailed out RBS after it imploded one year ago, it has underwritten more than £1.6bn in debt for companies operating in the tar sands.

Today, on the anniversary of RBS becoming majority-owned by the public, 40 public figures from the UK have signed a letter to Alistair Darling, the chancellor, urging him to stop the bank from using public money to finance tar sands development, and other fossil fuel projects around the world that are having devastating impacts on the climate, local habitats and communities.

Proceeds from these deals are funding some of the most aggressive and controversial expansion projects in the tar sands. Backed by £1bn in debt underwritten by RBS this year, ConocoPhillips aims to expand production from its three tar sands projects eightfold by 2015. These are the same projects at issue in a lawsuit brought by the Beaver Lake Cree Nation seeking an injunction to end the wholesale destruction of their ancestral lands, and citing more than 17,000 infringements of the community’s constitutionally protected treaty rights. RBS also underwrote $378m (£299m) in debt issued by Norway’s Statoil in March of this year, just two months before the Norwegian parliament considered a motion to suspend the company’s tar sands projects due to climate concerns.

As world leaders come together two weeks from now in Copenhagen, we all should take a moment to consider the way ahead. Do we go the well-worn path of big oil, ever further into the last pristine corners of the earth for our last fossil-fuel fix? Or do we forge a new path, towards a future that honours the land and the legacy of our ancestors? I hope the UK will put its money where its mouth is by pulling RBS’s business out of the tar sands.

. January 5, 2011 at 9:59 pm
. January 6, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Explosion, fire closes Alberta oilsands plant

By Ryan Cormier and Jana G. Pruden, Postmedia News January 6, 2011 5:36 PM

EDMONTON — Fire erupted Thursday at a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. oilsands facility near Fort McMurray after an apparent explosion that injured at least three people.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety spokeswoman Briar Crutchfield said the blaze has engulfed the primary upgrader area at the company’s Horizon site north of Fort McMurray. The plant has been evacuated.

“Oil production at the facility has been suspended and it is not yet known when production will resume,” the company said in a statement and all employees have been accounted for.

CNRL said the fire began at 3:30 p.m., and is located in the upgrader, a complex where bitumen is converted into crude oil products.

“One worker has third-degree burns and was taken to hospital,” Crutchfield said.

At least another two employees have unspecified injuries, she added. The ages and gender of the injured are not yet known.

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