Oil sands raise economic profile, environmental concern

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March 2, 2011 - 6:00pm

The oil that is pumped through the Keystone pipeline in eastern Nebraska comes from the oil sands region of northern Alberta, Canada. That would also be the source of oil for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that has raised controversy for the route it would take through the Nebraska Sandhills. Development of the oil sands has caused an economic boom in Alberta while raising many environmental questions. NET News' Grant Gerlock learns more from Dr. Andrew Miall, a geologist at the University of Toronto, and one member of a scientific panel appointed by the Canadian government to investigate how oil sands companies monitor their impacts on the environment.

AM: Well it's a very unusual deposit. There's only two or three of them like this in the world. The unusual feature about the oil sands is its volume. It's a very large reserve. If you add the oil sands to Canada's conventional oil then Canada has about as much oil in reserve as Saudi Arabia, which most people don't realize.

GG: So this sticky oil, it's called bitumen, right?

AM: That's right, it's the chemical name for the oil itself. Yes.

GG: And because it's tied up in the sand in that part of Alberta, it's not drilled like it is in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, or other places in Canada. Can you explain how it's actually produced?

AM: Yes, it doesn't flow to the surface naturally like conventional oil. It's sticky and it has to be extracted from the sand. What's being done now, there's two different methods of extracting the oil from the sand. One is by surface mining. The sand is stripped from the surface by large draggers and bulldozers and so on, and carried to central locations where hot steam is passed through it. And about 80 to 90 percent of the bitumen can be removed from the sand. The other method of extracting the oil is in the sub-surface, what are called the in-situ methods where the sand is buried too deeply to be extracted by surface strip mining. In this process steam pipes are inserted into the oil sands at depths of several hundred feet. The steam is released into the sand. It percolates up through the sand and heats the oil which then trickles down through the pore spaces between the sand and can be collected in the pipes and pumped to the surface.

GG: It's the mining methods that have gotten a lot of attention for the environmental issues, and the panel that you were on was looking into how oil companies monitor and report environmental impacts. The industry has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to environmental issues. Do you believe that reputation is earned?

AM: It certainly is an industry that's had a great deal of visual impact on the environment. Clearly what has caught everyone's attention are the huge surface strip mines which cover large areas and then the tailings ponds which are areas from which the oil has been removed that are established as ponds in which the used water is collected. This is poisonous water. It contains a lot of toxic materials. Birds that land in it die almost immediately and so there's a lot of attempt being made to keep the birds off them. These are very large industrial facilities. They can be seen them from space. You can see them very easily on Google Earth for example. Just by virtue of the magnitude of the operations there's a tendency to think that they are vast environmental catastrophes. But in fact if you look at the facts carefully in detail, which the Royal Society of Canada did last Fall, you find that they are really no worse than other major industrial operations. There's a certain amount of toxic materials that are being released into the waters but at a fairly low level. In the very long run, 20 to 30 years, it seems likely that the pollution can be managed. But there are unquestionably short term and very localized effects that are certainly very noticeable and these have received a lot attention.

GG: So there are the environmental issues, but the oil sands must also be a major employer in that part of the country.

AM: Oh, absolutely and it's the First Nations or aboriginal peoples that are being most affected both by the pollution and by the employment. Some of the major concerns about the oil sands have arisen from concerns about high cancer rates at a small First Nations community called Fort Chipewyan which is downstream from the Athabasca River, and they get their drinking water from this river and they breathe the air and so on. And there are concerns about high disease rates at Fort Chipewyan. On the other hand the location of the industry there provides tremendous employment opportunities. Fort McKay, which is another small aboriginal community right in the middle of the oil sands development area, I've been told that practically every adult male and female is employed one way or another either within the industry or within service companies that are there to provide services to the industry. So it's a huge employment benefit for the First Nations peoples. The industry is even now in little more than a startup phase, although it's part of a much broader problems with oil and gas in general that we are approaching the limits of the availability of oil and gas globally. The United States is still the largest consumer of oil and gas and imports now something like 60 percent of the oil and gas that is used domestically within the United States. Canada is the largest single supplier. This problem of supply is only going to get larger as growing economies like China and India compete for the remaining global resources.

Different groups have taken different perspectives on the Alberta oil sands:

-The Natural Resources Defense Council calls the region one of the dirtiest sources of fuel on the globe and a threat to clean energy development in the U.S.

-A report compiled by researchers for the Royal Society of Canada suggests that some environmental concerns are overplayed and that pollution from the oil sands is comparable to other heavy industries in Canada such as energy production.

-Dr. Miall and other members of the Oil Sands Advisory Panel recommend putting stronger environmental monitoring systems in place to trace long term impacts on the Athabasca River and surrounding boom towns.

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