Editor of The Millstone

On reading your recent issue, I feel compelled to respond to the article concerning the conversion of the natural gas pipeline to one carrying oil. Much of the article could be shown to be erroneous by very little research, so I did some.

I will select a few statements that are untrue.  Others apply to conditions in less regulated times and though they may contain an element of truth regarding those times, are highly erroneous with regard to current conditions.

First, oil extraction from the Alberta tar sands results in above-average carbon emissions.  According to the Pembina Institute (PI) (an Edmonton-based NGO with extensive research and technical capacity that seeks to use collaborative methods to protect Canada’s environment), “average greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States.”

I do not believe the Pembina Institute said that. Here is a statement from one of the Institute’s own publications, to be found at http://www.pembina.org/pub/2163

Oilsands emissions are 5 to 15% higher than average crude in the United States.

That statement covers, in the Institute’s words, “All GHG emissions, from the oil wells to combustion in the car, including: production (wells), upgrading, refining, transportation and dispensing at gas stations and combustion in the vehicle (wheels).” Using their own words, it is obvious that the 5 to 15% is a far cry from the article’s 3.2 to 4.5 times(320% to 450%).

Second, the damage that oil extraction is inflicting on the forests, water, air, and the people and animals living in Northern Alberta is unbelievable.  The PI reports that as of January 2013, oil sands mining operations have disturbed 715 square kilometres of boreal forest, cutting down the trees that are vital for controlling pollution, absorbing carbon dioxide, mitigating floods and so much more. Destroying these forests also displaces many wildlife species that depend on large intact landscapes, such as the woodland caribou.

The statement above ignores the fact that the somewhat overstated 715 square kilometres is part of more than 3, 000,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in Canada, less that 3/100 of a percentage point. I quote Wikipedia below for that area assessment.  Canada’s boreal forest is also considered to be the largest intact forest on earth, with around 3 million square kilometers still undisturbed by roads, cities and industrial development.

The further statement of displacement of woodland caribou ignores the fact that any displacement would be of a very tiny percentage of the range, far less than that caused by any of the aboriginal or Metis settlements where hunting occurs. Examination of the map put out by Parks Canada shows this. See

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/nature/eep-sar/itm3/eep-sar3caribou.aspx

It also ignores the amount of restoration that has been done and will be done.

The total area of Alberta identified as containing oilsands is approximately 140,000 square kilometres, and of this total, over 66% has been leased to companies for extraction. In other words, this initial damage is only the beginning; the worst is yet to come.

The above statement implies that all 140,000 square kilometres would be “disturbed”.. Much of that is not economical to develop. Most of the rest is far too deep for surface mining, so any development will be as for conventional oil. The area of a well site may be disturbed, but it will drain a far greater area of reservoir under undisturbed land.

As for water pollution, the oil extraction method requires huge amounts (about 170,000,000 m3 in 2011 (equivalent to the residential water use of 1,700,000 Canadians))  The resulting contaminated water then can’t be discharged into the soil.  Instead, it is stored in tailings lakes, or re-injected deep underground. In 2010, tailings lakes occupied 176 km2, and are expected to expand nearly 50% in area by 2020 to 250 km2.  It is known that these tailings seep into the ground, but the exact amount is not known or has not been made public.

That statement implies that tailings ponds are permanent. Many tailings ponds are now green meadows.  Most are associated with open-pit mining, a small part of production these days. Other operations recycle most of their water. One company, Cenovus, says they are in the water business as much as the oil business. Their water is separated from the oil, cleaned of salts and hydrocarbon, then used again as steam for injection for their SAGD process (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage).

In addition to extensive water contamination, there is also the problem of air pollution. The nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions resulting from extracting bitumen (a heavy, viscous form of crude oil) from the tar sands is more than double what results from producing the equivalent amount of conventional oil.  Both of these chemical compounds are major contributors to air pollution and acid rain formation.

Regulations regarding stack gases mean that these emissions are lower per energy unit than Ontario’s coal-fired power plants.

There is much documented evidence of health problems in the people and animals living in the area.  According to the article, The Alberta tar sands and First Nations health in the McGill Daily:
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  by a group at the University of Alberta in 2010 revealed the prevalence of carcinogens in areas around and downstream from the tar sands. The pollutants found in the snow and waterways included mercury, lead, and thallium – all of which have the potential to raise serious health concerns. Further reports with regards to environmental and health concerns have found higher instances of cancers in the communities surrounding the Athabasca River.  One of the main groups in this area is the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), who have been very active in voicing their concerns in recent months. (D. Kwon, Health & Ed, Nov. 26, 2012)

The conclusions above are drawn from anecdotal evidence. Following is the link to a study done by Alberta health and Welfare:

http://www.health.alberta.ca/documents/Oil-sands-HEAP-Sum-2000.pdf

The study drew conclusions that do not support the statements in the article. Here is a quote from the findings of the study.

Scores from the Fort McMurray and Lethbridge participants were compared with the scores of a reference population. Differences in the overall score between the two sample populations and the reference population were not statistically significant.

Much of the article  matches the expressed fears of those who detected an oil sheen on the Athabasca River downstream of Fort McMurray, using this as evidence of gross pollution. They should be reassured by the fact that Peter Pond, 230 years ago, noticed the same sheen as he took samples of bitumen from the river banks to patch his canoe.

Rather than credit the article, two facts should be considered:

  • The Athabasca oil sands are of immense benefit to all of Canada
  • An oil pipeline is vastly safer than transporting oil by rail

And unless we want to get around on foot or by bicycle (horses are environmentally harmful in the numbers required), we had better get used to oil sands development and to pipeline transport of petroleum.

Bill Lee