‘Dirty oil’ welcomed in U.S.

Watchdog group says primary environmental concern from Canada oil sands development is the cumulative impact

By William L. Spence of the Tribune

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Opponents call it the “dirtiest oil in the world,” but the heavy crude from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands region continues to find a welcomed reception south of the border.

Canada supplies about 20 percent of U.S. crude oil imports – more than all Persian Gulf nations combined, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It ships about 700 million barrels per year to U.S. refineries, oil sands accounting for 40 percent of that.

Most of that production comes from five open-pit bitumen mines located near Fort McMurray. However, “in situ” projects – which use steam-injection wells to extract bitumen from layers too deep for mining – will eventually outpace the surface mines and produce the bulk of the region’s oil.

Oil sands cover about 54,000 square miles in the northern half of the province, much of which is sparsely populated boreal forest. Only about 3 percent is shallow enough for surface mining, but that’s still more than 1,800 square miles – an area the size of Nez Perce County and Latah County combined.

“Virtually all of that has been leased, and we expect that entire surface area to be mined in the coming decades,” said Simon Dyer, director of Oil Sands Watch for Calgary-based Pembina Institute.

Pembina was part of a consortium of environmental groups that tried to block regulatory approval of Imperial Oil’s $8 billion Kearl open pit mine in 2008. Imperial wants to ship about 200 oversized loads of equipment from the Port of Lewiston to the mine site via U.S. Highway 12.

Dyer said the primary environmental concern from oil sands development is the cumulative impacts, rather than the effects of any individual project. Besides the five active mines and 90 or so in situ projects, nine new surface mines and dozens of in situ projects are under construction or have been proposed, with more likely in the future. Not only do these developments disturb the surface – removing trees, building roads, excavating great pits that can be hundreds of feet deep and bigger than the city of Lewiston – but they also use huge amounts of water and leave behind enormous tailings ponds.

“One of our criticisms is that development is proceeding prior to adequate planning,” Dyer said. “There’s no land-use plan for this landscape. (The Alberta government) has shown an unwillingness to regulate the industry adequately.”

For example, Imperial’s tailings pond plan was approved earlier this month even though the company acknowledged it couldn’t immediately meet new environmental standards intended to reduce the overall amount of tailings.

“Environmental regulations are flexible here,” Dyer said. “Unfortunately, they’re treated as negotiations.”

Bob McManus with the Alberta Department of Energy disputed that, saying the clear requirement is that “any land disturbed by development must be reclaimed to the purpose it previously served.”

Imperial Oil says the same thing, noting when the Kearl mine is depleted “it will be reclaimed to a boreal forest ecosystem.” Spokesman Pius Rolheiser said reclamation will be ongoing, with some areas being restored as other areas are mined.

“The vast majority of the material that’s removed from the mine will ultimately be put back,” he said.

Imperial’s regulatory application indicates the Kearl mine will disturb more than 27,000 acres of wetlands, plus about 22,000 acres of forestland. The joint provincial-federal review board that approved the application noted successful reclamation of that landscape “is required in the public interest.” Environmental groups, however, say there’s no evidence a boreal forest/wetlands ecosystem can actually be restored to its former productivity, given the “lack of concrete results” at existing mines.

Surface mining began in the oil sands region in 1967, with most of the activity taking place in the last 10 to 15 years. Almost 150,000 acres have been disturbed during that time, or about an eighth of the total area suitable for mining. To date, McManus said, Alberta has certified 257 acres as having been fully reclaimed, meaning liability has been removed from the oil company. Another 15,000 acres is currently being reclaimed.

Rolheiser said the industry is working on a variety of technologies to help speed up the reclamation process, particularly with regard to tailings ponds.

The ponds hold a mix of sand, fine clays and water, plus hydrocarbon residues that weren’t captured during the extraction process. About 1.5 barrels of liquid tailings are produced for each barrel of raw bitumen; for a project the size of Kearl, that will be roughly 21 million gallons per day at full capacity.

The man-made pools needed to accommodate such flows are enormous constructions. The Kearl application, for example, indicates the earthen dikes surrounding its tailings pond will be 115 to 312 feet high – taller than the tallest building in Idaho.

“Because the clay particles are so fine, they take a long time to settle – years and years,” Rolheiser said. “The best approach will be to improve the extraction process, so we don’t need to discharge as much volume.”

Dyer said existing tailings ponds in the region cover more than 65 square miles and contain about 220 billion gallons of polluted water – about as much water as flowed down the Snake River past Lewiston in the last three weeks. The amount of tailings is expected to increase 30 percent in the next decade.

“The industry likes to talk about technological innovations, but without stricter regulations companies won’t make the necessary investment,” Dyer said. “The Alberta government has approved every mine that’s been proposed. Consequently, there’s limited incentive for companies to go above and beyond.”

Spence may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2274.