Canada has the world's second largest proven oil reserves, but pays a heavy environmental price to exploit them.
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Mega-Project Scrapes the Bottom of the Oil Barrel
By Stephen Leahy
Extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands generates greenhouse gas emissions and destroys forests and wetlands. The activity’s health and social impact is one of Canada’s most pressing environmental issues.
BROOKLIN Canada, (Tierramérica).- Thousands of square kilometres of tar-laden soil and sand underlying Canada's boreal forests are being gobbled up to feed an insatiable appetite for oil in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It is an industrial effort of Leviathan proportions that is growing at a breakneck, greed-fuelled pace. The environmental impacts are on a similar scale. The world's largest or third-largest dam, depending on who you talk to, holds back 300 million cubic metres of contaminated water and sand. In all, mine wastes cover something like 50 square kilometres -- easily visible from space.
Squeezing oil from tar sands 200 feet below northern Alberta's seemingly endless carpet of spruce and fir trees, pristine lakes and wetlands is not only expensive, it is messy and highly polluting.
"Oil from the tar sands has by far the biggest environmental impacts compared to any other method of oil production," Dan Woynillowicz, a researcher at the Pembina Institute -- a Calgary, Alberta environmental group -- told Tierramérica.
Tar sands are contained in three major areas beneath 140,800 square kilometres of north-eastern Alberta. Since 1973, only about two percent of this total has been involved in oil production, according to Alberta government data.
The U.S. Department of Energy says this enormous area represents the world's second largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Shell Oil claim Canada's reserves are in fact the largest in the world.
Canada has also quietly become the largest supplier of imported oil to the U.S. More than 2.1 million barrels of black gold go south every day, supplying about 10 percent of total U.S. oil and gasoline consumption. Half of that amount comes from the Alberta tar sands, which are also called oil sands.
The oil sands development is already the world's largest industrial project. And with sky-high energy prices, oil companies from around the world plan to invest as much as 110 billion dollars to expand operations, hoping to triple oil production over the next 10 to 15 years. Even more pipelines will soon criss-cross Alberta to export all that black gold.
Last week, a Canadian company proposed to build a 3.6-billion-dollar, 3,300- kilometre-long pipeline to Texas so that 400,000 barrels of oil sands crude a day could be refined into gasoline by 2011.
China has proposed a 2.5-billion-dollar, 1,160-kilometre pipeline to move oil from Alberta through the Rocky Mountains to the west coast of Canada.
There are eight or nine proposals on the table including pipelines to California, says Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Some have already started an expansion of pipelines into the U.S. Midwest and to Canada's west coast, Stringham told Tierramérica.
"There is nowhere else in the world where this much money is being invested," said Woynillowicz.
So far, strip mining has been the main technique for getting at the tar-laden sands. The world's largest hydraulic excavators scoop up 80 to 90 tonnes of rock and sand and dump it into the world's largest dump trucks, the Caterpillar 797B. A 796B stands 7.6 metres and weighs 623,690 kg when it's empty.
Many operations also use huge conveyor belt systems to transport the material to processing plants, where the tar is literally boiled out of the sand with water heated to 95 degrees C. About 90 percent of the tar is recovered. The tar or bitumen has to be further processed by adding hydrogen, extreme heat -- up to 500 degrees C -- and pressure and removing nitrogen and sulphur before it becomes what's known as light sweet synthetic crude oil.
"It's scraping the bottom of the oil barrel to get oil from the tar sands," said Woynillowicz.
Not only does the mining destroy large areas of land, the process is very energy- and water-intensive and emits enormous volumes of greenhouse gases.
It also produces huge volumes of waste. Roughly two tonnes of sand must be excavated and processed to make one barrel or 158 litres of oil. For every thousand litres of oil shipped south, 6,000 litres of tailings are left behind.
Syncrude, the biggest tar sands operator and a joint venture among eight U.S. and Canadian energy companies, has 300 million cubic metres of tailings penned up at its Southwest Sand Storage Facility. Even more liquids are stored in the 22 square kilometre Mildred Lake Tailings Settling Basin.
"It's a major bird breeding area so noise cannons and scarecrows have to be used to keep them away," says Rick Schneider of the Canadian Parks and Wildness Society in Edmonton, Alberta.
Stringham says the oil companies are working on new techniques to both use less water and to remediate the tailings.
However, experts at Canada's National Energy Board called the challenge of reclaiming tailings "daunting" in 2004 since there is no known technique.
By 2020 just two companies will produce more than one billion cubic metres of fine tailings, according to the Pembina report "Oil Sands Fever," published in November 2005.
"The environmental impacts of the oil sands are astronomical," said Lindsay Telfer of the Sierra Club of Canada from Edmonton.
Greenhouse gas emissions, forest and wetland destruction and fragmentation, air pollution, toxic waste, water pollution, human health and social impacts; it's all here in Alberta's oil sands, Telfer said in an interview.
Even former U.S. vice president Al Gore has made the oil sands an issue, decrying the enormous use of natural gas to produce the world's dirtiest oil. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in June, Gore said that using Alberta's tar sands to supply the U.S. with oil was "truly nuts" because of the environmental impacts.
"This is the biggest environmental issue in Canada," agrees Telfer.
* Stephen Leahy is a Terramérica correspondent