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Canada is cleaning up the image of its oil sands

Big industrial projects are ugly. Under pressure, Canada is taking steps to improve the image of its oil sands

Earth Day, 22 April, may seem an incongruous date for the governments of Canada and Alberta to launch a new website to track oil-sands contaminants in the environment. But environmentalists, many of whom oppose the developments in Canada, had reason to cheer.

The website marks the first time that timely data relating to the oil-sands industry’s impact on land, air and water has been made public; and all in raw, unedited form, too. The federal and provincial authorities spent C$50 million ($48.5m) on the programme – a bargain if it helps clean up their image as eco-bruisers.

Canada plans to double oil-sands output to 3.8m barrels a day within the next 10 years. Environmental concerns and the public perception of Canada as a source of dirty oil could yet crimp those plans.

Judging from Google, Canada has a way to go. Search the term “dirty oil” and 115m results pop up, with the oil sands the common theme. The country’s oil aspirations are routinely protested in the streets of Washington DC and London. Whether it likes it or not, oil sands have become a global issue.

Commitment

Local officials admit as much: “By openly reporting on our data and our progress, we are ensuring the rest of the world recognises our commitment to responsible and sustainable resource development,” said Alberta’s environment minister Diana McQueen at the website’s launch.

Indeed, it is the rest of the world Canada needs to convince that its oil sands can be extracted in an acceptable fashion if it is to open new markets in the US, Asia and the EU.

It is an uphill struggle. Canada’s image took a hit after it withdrew from the Kyoto Accord in 2011. Critics called it a concession to the oil-sands industry, which is responsible for 7% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or 48m tonnes in 2010. Oil sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions of which have more than doubled since 2000.

The numbers overlook some positive achievements industry has made. Although absolute emissions from the oil sands continue to rise, oil production is growing more quickly, so emissions per barrel have fallen 29% since 1990. (This number is likely to fall as more production is developed using thermal, or in situ, extraction methods, which emit more CO2 than mined oil sands.)

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial GHG emissions and place a price on carbon, at C$15 per tonne. The income is transferred into a technology fund to pay for research and development.

Alberta has committed C$2bn of public funds to promote carbon capture and storage (CCS). The biggest beneficiary has been Shell Canada’s Quest CCS project near Edmonton, which received C$950m to store 1.1m t/y of CO2 per year from its Athabasca oil sands project. It came on stream in September 2012.

Initial results from the new monitoring regime arrived in April. (Data will be published monthly.) Though they reveal production of oil sands-related production chemicals in land and air close to the sites of the developments, the findings have not yet raised alarm bells. Almost all water and air samples show levels of oil sands-related contaminants to be below government guidelines.

Nonetheless, satellite data, also part of the new monitoring programme, showed a distinct concentration of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere over the oil-sands region. It was a concentration comparable to a metropolitan area such as Toronto.

“These are very early results and should be interpreted in that context,” said the government’s monitoring agency. “Overall, the levels of contaminants in water and in air are not a cause for concern.”

As monitoring continues and historical data build up the results will become more meaningful. More important, politicians have vowed to take a hands-off approach to the collection and dissemination of the numbers.

That has won the backing of scientists, including David Schindler, a University of Alberta professor whose peer-reviewed research showing contamination by the oil sands put pressure on the Alberta and federal governments to act.

Beyond this partnership with the federal government, Alberta (which, according to Canada’s constitution, owns the resource), has tabled legislation allowing it to implement any other monitoring systems it deems necessary. It would pass the costs onto the industry.

Toxic assets

A directive from the Energy and Resources Conservation Board, Alberta’s upstream regulator, also requires oil-sands producers gradually to reduce and eliminate tailings ponds – the lakes of sludge left beside oil-sands pits during the mining process.

Oil companies have been testing new techniques to convert the toxic liquids into solid form, but so far only a tiny fraction of the tailings has been reclaimed and restored to their pre-disturbed state, as required by provincial law.

The Pembina Institute, a respected local environmental group, says 176 square km of tailings, which can be poisonous to local bird and wildlife, lay unreclaimed in 2010 – an area the size of Vancouver.

Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy, two large producers, have reclaimed two of their tailings lakes. But, wary of slowing developments, the government has frequently moved the deadlines by which other mines must eliminate their tailings. Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine, the oil sands’ most producing development, was recently given an extension allowing its tailings to fester until 2038.

But Canada is also making clear that greening its oil sands will be costly, and future environmental improvements depend on gaining better prices for its oil, which is priced at discounts to WTI.

Speaking in London on 12 May, federal environment minister Peter Kent said higher prices are essential to mitigating GHGs. “What we have to do, one way or another, is get rid of the US discount,” Kent told the Canadian Press. “That would certainly provide great latitude to invest in the technology.” 

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