Category Archives: Water pollution

Oil sands buyers and sellers

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Portia describes how the quality of mercy is twice blessed: “[i]t blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

The oil sands are like the moral opposite of mercy – it is unethical to produce them, and unethical to consume them. It is unethical for the oil companies to dig up and sell such fuels, given what we know about climate change, and it is unethical for the buyers to purchase the fuels, largely for the same reason. Both buyers and sellers are complicit in a pattern of action that sells out future generations, in exchange for profits and cheaper fuels today. They are all knowingly imposing harm upon people all over the world, either in exchange for profits or in exchange for the benefit of using cheap fossil fuels.

In time, the oil sands industry may come to be seen as much like the asbestos industry: companies that push what they know to be a dangerous and harmful product, just because it is in their self interest to do so. Even worse, the companies do everything in their power to keep their industry unregulated. They fund phoney ‘grassroots’ groups that argue that the oil sands are wonderful, they run misleading advertising campaigns, they make campaign contributions to politicians, they make misleading claims about jobs, etc.

Strategies for stopping Gateway #1: The Hecate Strait

As Gerald Butts explained in The Globe and Mail, one of the biggest environmental risks associated with the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is the stream of supertankers that would carry oil from Kitimat out to the Pacific: “At Kitimat, toxic diluted bitumen would be loaded onto supersized tankers. Each year, more than 200 would travel through narrow fjords and into some of the world’s most treacherous seas”.

These tankers would flow through the treacherous Hecate Strait – a dangerous maritime environment located far away from equipment that would be required in the event of a major spill. It’s also an area of considerable natural beauty and ecological importance.

It seems like a convincing case to be made that building the Northern Gateway pipeline creates an unacceptable marine oil spill risk – and that is just one of a great many arguments against the project.

Engineer speaks out against Keystone XL pipeline

Mike Klink, a former pipeline inspector with Bechtel, has publicly spoken out about the shoddy construction he saw on the original Keystone pipeline and what that means about the risks arising from the proposed Keystone XL expansion:

I am not an environmentalist, but as a civil engineer and an inspector for TransCanada during the construction of the first Keystone pipeline, I’ve had an uncomfortable front-row seat to the disaster that Keystone XL could bring about all along its pathway.

When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job – but people along the Keystone XL pathway have a lot more to lose if this project moves forward with the same shoddy work.

What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.

I shared these concerns with my bosses, who communicated them to the bigwigs at TransCanada, but nothing changed. TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields.

TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year – what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?

Klink says he is speaking out because his children have encouraged him to do the right thing.

Oil sands exports and oil spills

If Canada’s west coast becomes the gateway for oil sands exports to Asia, one undeniable risk is oil spills. These could occur along pipelines, as occurred recently in Alberta, or in the event that oil tankers run into difficulties.

With luck, the legitimate concern that oil exporting activities could contaminate the beautiful landscape of British Columbia could help to reduce the chances of B.C. becoming Alberta’s partner in digging up and selling some of the world’s most dangerous fuel.

Given that the Alberta government is dead-set on continuing to expand oil sands exports, it may fall to more responsible jurisdictions around that province to cut off access to markets.

CCS doesn’t make coal ‘clean’

Reporting on SaskPower’s proposed $1.24 billion project to capture and store carbon dioxide from the Boundary Dam coal power station in Saskatchewan, many news sources have described the technology as ‘clean coal’.

There is no such thing.

Even if a power plant could be built that separates 100% of the carbon dioxide from its emissions and then buries them forever, there will still be lots about coal that is far from clean. There is coal mining, which kills thousands of people a year and contaminates land and water supplies. There are the particulate emissions from coal plants, which cause many human deaths. There are other toxic emissions from coal plants, including mercury, radioactive materials, and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (which cause acid rain and other problems). There is toxic coal ash that is left over after combustion, and which many countries store in sub-standard ways.

Even if climate change were not a problem, we would want the world to be moving away from toxic, dangerous, dirty coal. That said, given that countries like China and the United States have large coal reserves and that there is strong political pressure to keep burning the stuff, it does seem sensible to allow coal power companies to develop and deploy CCS technology, provided that it can be shown to be safe and effective. It is the companies and the people buying power who should pay for the deployment of such technology, however, since they are the ones who are harming everyone else with toxic and greenhouse gas pollution.

Shale gas in the U.K.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently released a report on the climatic impacts of shale gas, a type of unconventional fossil fuel. They feel that just the risk of water contamination is enough to justify a moratorium, going on to say that the use of shale gas risks delaying the vital transition to a low-carbon global society.

The British Department of Energy and Climate Change is being dismissive of the report.

The Royal Society’s oil sands expert panel

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.