Piping crude oil through Mississippi Mills: What do we know? What should we know?

by Theresa Peluso

Section of the Alaska Piepline
Section of the Alaska Pipeline

Part I:  The Alberta tarsands

You are no doubt aware that TransCanada Corporation has initiated a project, called the Energy East pipeline, to transport annually between 500,000 and 850,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada in an effort to provide markets for oil from the Alberta tarsands.  To achieve this, TransCanada will need to convert existing natural gas pipelines that are no longer operating at minimum capacity, build new pipelines, and build new pipeline facilities all the way from Hardisty, Alberta to Quebec City and Saint John (N.B.), where the oil will be refined, and shipped by tankers to other destinations. Part of the proposed route is expected to go through Mississippi Mills close to Pakenham.  Alain Parise, a TransCanada representative, explained the benefits of this proposal at a Committee of the Whole meeting held on June 4.

You can’t have missed the impassioned debate about several other proposed pipelines: the Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway, and the Trans Mountain pipelines.  What I have tried to ascertain is:  What are the promises?  What are the concerns?  Does any of this apply to the Energy East proposal?

Owing to the considerable information available on the Alberta tarsands and the various proposals to build pipelines to transport it to refineries and end markets, this article is being published in two parts.  Part 1 is a review of the concerns relating to the Alberta tar sands themselves.  Part II will examine the history of three recent pipeline proposals by three different companies, and list the concerns expressed by various groups in connection with oil pipelines.

Although there is increasing awareness of the impact of carbon emissions on climate change and ocean acidification, it appears to be extremely difficult to wean people off their current oil-and-gas-dependent lifestyles.  This is an ongoing issue, involving endless talk and very little action.  The current strategy is to continue to depend on oil, while making some effort to use alternate energy sources and be more economical with the oil we do use.  So many people accept the decision to continue extracting, transporting and using oil, but a number of them draw the line at the Alberta tar sands because they consider it to be “dirty oil” for several reasons.

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.”

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 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.

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.

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.

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)

Sierra Club Canada has reported that in the last five or six years, fish in Lake Athabasca have been found with lumps on them, humpbacks, and crooked tails.

To add insult to injury, the seven oil companies mining the oil have been doing little to clean up the horrible mess they have created.  According to The Guardian Weekly:

None of the companies operating in Canada’s tar sands have met a commitment to clean up the vast and expanding sprawl of toxic wasteponds, an official report has found. The report, from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, further challenges the Canadian government’s claims to responsible mining of the tar sands….The report focuses on the provincial government’s promise to clean up and eventually eliminate a vast network of open ponds storing mining waste from the tar sands along the Athabasca river. None of the seven companies operating in the tar sands met the original performance standard, set in 2009, during the last two years, the ECRB said in its report. Only one of the companies met a revised and weakened standard. The finding was quietly published last week, without a press release…. However, the board did not propose any penalties against the companies, suggesting instead that the clean-up targets may have been overly optimistic. (June 20, 2013)

Besides not penalizing these companies for not meeting their commitments to clean up after themselves, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper has been gutting environmental controls. The Pembina Institute had this to say:

When it comes to assessing and addressing the environmental impacts of oil sands development, things are poised to go from bad to worse. In its 2010 review of the environmental and health impacts of the oil sands sector, the Royal Society of Canada found that the environmental regulatory capacity of the Alberta and federal governments was lacking, and characterized the environmental impact assessment process used by regulators to make public interest decisions as “seriously deficient” and falling short of international standards.

But rather than providing adequate resources to fix the problem, the Harper government is slashing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s budget by 40 per cent and imposing arbitrary new timelines for the regulatory review of major industrial projects. According to media reports, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has confirmed those changes will be applied to reviews on projects that are already underway, like the Northern Gateway pipeline review. (Budget 2012: Canada won’t spare a penny for clean energy Pembina Institute by Ed Whittingham, March 30, 2012)

As if avoiding punishment and being given even less oversight for environmental violations weren’t enough, these oil companies seem to have, effectively, been given permission to proceed with their current practices. The PI reports that more than a doubling of current oilsands production has been approved by federal and provincial regulators. All this with the help of generous government subsidies.  According to a report by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada:

The study found that direct federal spending to support the fossil fuel sector has decreased since 2000. Direct expenditures totalled $508 million during the five year period covered by the study. The study noted that support for cleaner technologies continues to increase. In addition, the government is phasing out some tax incentives that favoured the fossil fuel sector.

At the same time, the study identified a number of other tax incentives that remain in place and provide a significant amount of support for fossil fuel extraction. The estimated cost of tax expenditures that Finance Canada links specifically to the fossil fuel sector totalled $1.47 billion over the past five years. Over the same period, an additional $2 billion in tax expenditures is attributed to the oil, gas, mining, and clean energy sectors, in which fossil fuels represent a majority of revenue. (Feb. 5, 2013)

You can see why the Alberta tar sands have such an unsavoury reputation, not only in Canada and the U.S., but in other countries as well.  The reality is that this oil extraction is ongoing, and the companies involved are looking for buyers.  This is where Mississippi Mills gets involved.

This explains in part, the reason why the Canadian government is having such difficulty getting British Columbia and the United States to approve the oil pipelines proposed to transport oil extracted from the tarsands.  Stay tuned for Part II:  Three Pipeline Proposals:  Are they as safe as their proponents say?