Oil sands report card

Drew Sexsmith with a mandolin

The Pembina Institute and the World Wildlife Fund of Canada have a new report out on the oil sands. It is available as a four page summary or a 72 page PDF. The report is based on surveys sent to 10 different oil sands operations and focuses on the degree to which they have adopted policies to mitigate their environmental impact.

The report highlights both the greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil sands extraction and processing and the impacts upon fresh water. It also points out how the idea that land is ‘reclaimed’ after extraction is seriously faulty. Apparently, “[d]espite over 40 years of oil sands development, not a single hectare of land has been certified as reclaimed under Government of Alberta guidelines.” The permanent conversion of boreal forests ultimately belonging to the people of Alberta into fields of toxic mud is certainly cause for concern.

The report stresses possibilities for improvement, explaining how running all facilities using the best standards in other existing facilities would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 66%, and reduce volatile organic compound emissions by 47%. Nitrous oxide emissions could be cut by 80%, while sulphur dioxide emissions could be reduced by 47%. Adopting a proposed water efficiency standard would reduce annual water consumption by 60%. These figures are all based on facilities running at maximum capacity, as can probably be assumed with oil around $100 a barrel.

Depressingly, the report highlights that a currently proposed project has even worse standards than existing facilities. In order to mitigate the trend, three recommendations are made to government along with two to industry. The governmental suggestions are:

  1. Government needs to enforce acceptable standards of environmental performance and continuously improve regulations to reflect continuous improvement in companies’ abilities to reduce environmental impacts.
  2. Government needs to report on environmental impacts to public lands.
  3. Government must request segregated information to enable comparison of environmental performance.

The industry recommendations are:

  1. Companies need to implement best available practices and focus on developing and implementing new technologies and processes that lead to step-wise reductions in environmental impacts.
  2. Companies should make project specific oil sands environmental performance information more widely available and in a consistent format.

Overall, this approach may be a productive one. Rather than highlighting the ecological costs of oil sands extraction and demanding that the industry be scaled back, demands for all firms to meet the highest existing standards might be able to mitigate some of the harmful effects without creating as much antagonism. It’s not a comprehensive solution, but it may be a clever form of harm reduction.

Anyone interested in the state of Canada’s environment is encouraged to read at least the short summary.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Oil sands report card”

  1. The fact that oil production in the sands is being allowed to run rampant is a victory of particular interests over universal ones.

    If oil production was sharply curtailed, the dollar would go down – and since many more Canadians work in the manufacturing sector than the oil sector (or rather, in export sectors writ large), I believe it would be in the universal interest.

    Alberta has very different interests from the rest of Canada. This is why I called last year for the abolishment of their provincial legislature, and their direct governance from Ottawa instead.

  2. Europe May Ban Imports of Some Biofuel Crops

    If approved by European governments, the law would prohibit the importation of fuels derived from crops grown on certain kinds of land — including forests, wetlands or grasslands — into the 27-nation bloc.

    The ban would primarily affect palm oil and possibly the Latin American imports.

    Already, the draining and deforesting of peatlands in Southeast Asia — mainly to make way for palm plantations — accounts for up to 8 percent of global annual carbon dioxide emissions, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

    In Indonesia, he said, more than 18 million hectares of forest, or 44 million acres, have already been cleared for palm oil developments. Environmental groups say the developments are endangering wildlife like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, and putting pressure on indigenous peoples who depend on the forests.

  3. This is why I called last year for the abolishment of their provincial legislature, and their direct governance from Ottawa instead.

    This is how civil wars begin.

  4. * Tar Sands operations could eventually cover 149,000 square kilometers of pristine forest – that’s an area roughly the size of Florida.

    * Each day the tar sands use 600 million cubic feet of natural gas to, in effect, melt the tarry sludge into a usable form – that’s enough natural gas to heat more than 3 million Canadian homes.

    * Producing a barrel of oil from the tar sands produces three times more greenhouse gas than a barrel of conventional oil.

    * Tar sands operations use about the same amount of freshwater in a year that the entire City of Calgary uses (population 1 million) – 90% of this freshwater ends up in toxic tailing ponds.

    * Toxic tailing ponds already cover more than 50 square kilometers and are considered to be one of largest man-made structures in the world.

  5. Protesters dog Stelmach in Washington

    Stelmach told an energy forum during his first visit to Washington, D.C., yesterday that though that “myth” has gained some traction in the United States, it shouldn’t be believed.

    “There are ongoing attempts in some quarters of this country to slow down or even stop oilsands development,” his speech read.

    “Those attempts don’t reflect reality, and they don’t make sense.

    “Even worse, they could serve to jeopardize this country’s energy security at a time when Asian markets are clamouring for oil.”

  6. An empire from a tub of goo

    How did the quest to retrieve the treasure hidden beneath huge swaths of northern Alberta go from fool’s errand to monumentous payoff? Erin Anderssen, Shawn McCarthy and Eric Reguly explain.

  7. Estimates vary, but environmental groups says it now takes two to four barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca plus 750 cubic feet of natural gas and about two tons of oily sand to produce one barrel of oil. The process produces two to three times the carbon emissions of a conventional oil well and creates toxic waste water, called tailings, that cannot be allowed back in the river.

  8. While it isn’t hard for nations and provinces to get rich from oil, it is exceptionally hard – almost impossible, by conventional economic reasoning – for them to make money off anything else while the oil boom is taking place.

    Everywhere else in the world – including Canada – a boom in oil has led to a decline, if not a complete devastation, of conventional businesses. It’s a phenomenon known to economists as “Dutch disease,” after the tragic experience of the Netherlands, which discovered oil in the 1970s. As oil exports boomed, the flood of money into the domestic economy inflated the currency, provoked price increases and destroyed exports, leading to a decade of joblessness and rising inequality.

  9. The Management Rule is the heart of Norway’s economic miracle. It is a profound act of self-discipline: All but 4 per cent of Norway’s oil earnings must be placed in the fund for savings; nothing can be withdrawn from the fund until the oil is gone, decades from now; and – most crucially – absolutely none of the money can be invested inside Norway. Mr. Slyngstad and his traders spend their days funnelling the oil wealth into foreign stocks and bonds, so none of it will touch the Norwegian economy.

  10. “There are a lot of great investments that you can make. If you are investing in tar sands or shale oil then you have a portfolio that is crammed with subprime carbon assets.

    And it is based on an old model.

    Junkies find veins in their toes when the ones in their arms and their legs collapse.”

    Al Gore

  11. Green.view
    The politics of sand

    Aug 25th 2008
    From Economist.com
    What constitutes sustainability?

    IT’S official: extracting oil from Canada’s vast deposits of bitumenous sand is unsustainable. So, at any rate, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) implicitly concluded when it ruled that Royal Dutch Shell was misleading the public by describing its tar-sands operation as “sustainable”.

    WWF, the environmental NGO that lodged the complaint with the ASA, dislikes the tar sands (or oil sands, as Shell prefers to call them) because turning them into fuel consumes much more energy than refining crude oil does. If that energy is made by burning natural gas—as it is in all tar-sands projects at the moment—and so involves extra emissions of greenhouse gases, then the resulting fuel is two or three times as bad for the atmosphere as normal petrol or diesel. That is no good for the world’s climate, and so, in WWF’s view, unsustainable.

  12. The Pembina Institute

    Heating Up in Alberta
    Climate Change, Energy Development and Water

    Published: Feb 9, 2009

    By: Mary Griffiths, Dan Woynillowicz

    With available fresh water resources expected to decrease as a result of climate change, Alberta faces the challenge of meeting its growing demand for water in a sustainable manner. This report draws attention to the decline of summer river flows, the future effects of climate change on water supply and the projected growth in demand for water for energy production and to meet the needs of a growing population. It also documents Alberta’s contribution to climate change through growing greenhouse gas emissions, which the Government of Alberta will allow to continue to increase through 2020.

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