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:
- Government needs to enforce acceptable standards of environmental performance and continuously improve regulations to reflect continuous improvement in companies’ abilities to reduce environmental impacts.
- Government needs to report on environmental impacts to public lands.
- Government must request segregated information to enable comparison of environmental performance.
The industry recommendations are:
- 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.
- 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.