Oil sands are Canada’s environmental nightmare

VANCOUVER, Canada —  The tar sands oil development project in Canada’s northern Alberta continues to exact a heavy environmental price, contaminating large parts of the province with heavy metal pollution and carcinogens and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.


The oil sands in Northern Alberta are Canada’s largest source of new oil production, much of it being exported to the U.S. by rail and providing an estimated 20 percent of all fuel. Despite mounting damage, the right-wing Conservative Party national government of Stephen Harper and its Conservative counterpart in Alberta are supporting the growth of this industry at all costs. Unlike conventional oil extraction, oil companies use a variety of methods to extract a thick form of petroleum known as bitumen. The methods include open pit mining and injecting steam and natural gas into the ground to heat the gooey, tar-like substance and force it to the surface.  Bitumen is then turned into oil through an energy-intensive process that causes widespread environmental damage.

Despite assurances from oil companies that they are following strict environmental regulations, the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, a provincial-federal initiative, recently discovered an increase in mercury levels in the eggs of predatory birds living downstream from the oil sands, with some samples above the threshold that could be considered dangerous.  While federal scientists did not link it with the oil sands, and instead said further research was required to determine its exact source, it is the third peer-reviewed study since 2010 to show rising mercury levels.

“These studies suggest there is a problem and provide critical insight into the impacts of the oil sands industry,” Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute, a leading Canadian environmental think tank located in Alberta, said in an email interview. “In other scientific journals, higher levels of heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic compounds (known as carcinogens) have been found in higher concentrations downstream of oil sands operations relative to upstream.”

A 2010 study undertaken by Erin Kelly and David Schindler from the University of Alberta had earlier linked high levels of toxic contamination with oil sand mining.  The study found levels of the pollutants cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and silver exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life in melted snow and water collected downstream from oil sands operations. “They’re all elements that are known to be toxic at low concentrations”, said Schindler. The scientists based their findings on 35 water samples drawn from the Athabasca River, a major river near the oil sands, and from its tributaries, the Athabasca Delta and Athabasca Lake, upstream and downstream from the oil sands.

The oil sands are also wreaking destruction on the vast boreal forest, stripping the equivalent of 34.5 football fields of trees from the land each day in order to dig for new bitumen, said Grant.

Huge tailing ponds filled with toxic waste are expanding across the Albertan plateau. Oil companies use two to four barrels of water to extract and upgrade one barrel of bitumen, which is later mixed with additives to make oil. The waste water, contaminated with heavy metals, bitumen residues, clay, sand, bitumen, salts, toxic compounds such as metal, polcyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthoric acids and solvents added to the bitumen during the separation process, are then drained into tailing ponds that cover 176 kilometers. These ponds are toxic to aquatic life, birds and wildlife.

“Modeled estimates suggest that approximately 11 million liters of tailings waste leak  from these lakes everyday” wrote Grant. Already these tailing ponds have killed hundreds of migrating ducks and birds. The tailing ponds are so toxic that companies must fire air guns to keep birds and animals away from the ponds.

Oil companies have not yet fulfilled promises to develop new technologies to treat toxic water in the tailing ponds, and fears exist that this dirty water will sit there for decades, leaking toxic water.

Greenpeace Canada charges that the tar sands are polluting the Athabasca River, lacing the air with toxins, turning farmland into wasteland and increasing greenhouse gas emissions through the clear-cutting of trees. The organization is calling on Canada’s federal government to halt the extraction and processing of bitumen.

Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community living downstream from the tar sands, has been hit hard by the oil sands development. Health studies show they have higher rates of cancer and autoimmune diseases since the advent of the tar sands.

Meanwhile, the Harper government and its provincial Conservative counterpart, which maintain they are protecting the environment, have gutted environmental regulations and allowed oil companies to do as they please. A report this year, based on years of painstaking collection of data through access-to-information requests, reveals that less than 1% of environmental violations in the oil sands are subject to any prosecution. Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch, in a 677-page report, written from documents found in Alberta’s environmental data library in Edmonton, compiled a list of 9,262 infractions since 1996, ranging from excessive smokestack emissions and bitumen spills into the Athabasca River to discoveries of toxic waste dumps in the bush.

Many of the files they were given were incomplete, full of errors and not well organized. The public was never informed of many environmental infractions, they report. Only 37 cases were prosecuted, for an enforcement rate of 0.9 %, and the median fine levied against companies was $4,500. “Alberta’s environmental regulations in the bitumen sands regions are not being upheld” concludes the report.

Much like the previous Bush administration in the U.S., the Harper government is waging a war against government scientists responsible for environmental regulation, research and consumer safety. Ninety percent of scientists, in a poll undertaken by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, representing 4,069 federal scientific workers, believe the Harper government has silenced them, while 24 percent have said that the government has instructed them to exclude or alter documents for nonscientific reasons. Fifty percent know of cases where the health and well being of the public have been put at risk by political interference.

Before he became prime minister in 2006, Harper, a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, used to question the science of global warming, and claimed it was a “socialist plot” when he headed the National Citizen’s Association, a corporate lobbying group. His government also pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, the worldwide agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The oil sands are also Canada’s largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions, as companies use ever larger amounts of natural gas, and clear cut forests, to extract and process bitumen. Environment Canada said recently that emissions growth from the Albertan oil sands is overshadowing reductions in other parts of the economy, meaning the country will likely fail to reach its international pledge to cut greenhouse gases. Following six years of overall reductions, carbon emissions are set to increase 20 percent above Canada’s Copenhagen accord target of 612 megatons.

Despite mounting environmental damage, the Harper government has spent millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money to finance TV ads to persuade Canadians and lobby leaders in Washington and Europe that the oil sands are clean, ethical and green. The European Union, under its Fuel Quality Directive, has labelled oil from the oil sands  a dirty fuel. This measure, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, discourages European refiners from importing Canadian bitumen. The Harper government hopes to persuade the Obama administration to allow the construction of the Keystone pipeline which would would bring oil sands oil from Alberta to refiners along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Photo: Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake plant in the Athabascan oil sands region of Alberta, Canada. Syncrude is one of the world’s largest producers of synthetic crude oil from oil sands. Wikimedia Commons