||June 2008 issue||
FEATURE: Alberta’s oil-sands
More than a million barrels of crude flow out of Alberta’s oil-sands plants every day.
Environmentally, it’s a disaster zone. There’s no turning off the tap, but improvements
in five areas could limit the staggering scale of the ecological damage.
By Curtis Gillespie with photography by Garth Lenz
“HARD TO BELIEVE, HEY?” says Scott Kinnee, the helicopter pilot flying me over the Athabasca oil sands north of
Fort McMurray, Alta. “You don’t really get a sense of the scale
of things unless you come up top.” Up top being 500 metres
above ground level, high enough to see 70 to 80 kilometres
in any direction; that is, until the sky closes over as we near
the dozens upon dozens of emissions towers and flare stacks
of the Suncor, Syncrude and Albian Sands plants. The
limpid winter sunshine we’d had at the airport hangar 30
kilometres to the south is gone, and the sun is now a dull
white bulb wobbling unsteadily behind a motionless sooty
haze. “Yeah,” says Kinnee, nodding as I remark upon the
sun’s enervation. “These plants are so huge, they basically
create their own weather system.”
|‘There are five major things that the oil sands companies
need to do if they really truly do care about the environment
and the amazing thing is that all five are achievable, not all
that expensive, and all use already existing technology.’
1 Carbon capture and storage
2 Dry tailings instead of wet
3 Reducing the overall water usage of the plants
4 Clamping down on the level of acidifying emissions
5 Establishing large areas of boreal forest that are off limits
The beauty of the boreal forest that surrounds Fort
McMurray and covers most of northern Alberta lies in its
magnitude, but once you arrive at oil-sands central, what you
see is a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of
many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated.
Dominating this landscape are half a dozen giant extraction
and refining plants with their stacks and smoke and fire, disorientingly wide and deep mines, and tailings ponds held in check by some of the world’s largest dams. As a panoramic vision, it’s all rather heartbreaking but, if one is forced to be honest, also awe-inspiring, such is the energy and the damage produced by human ambition.
Yet despite how important, and how environmentally
divisive, the oil sands have become in today’s politically
charged energy domain, the early and even fairly recent
days of this resource were decidedly humble. In fact,
although it’s been a century or so since people first began trying to exploit the resource, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Athabasca oil sands were launched on today’s bitumen
mega-arc, bitumen being the thick, tarlike hydrocarbon
extracted from the sands and refined into synthetic crude oil.
Predictions vary slightly, but production is expected to at least quadruple to four or five
million barrels of refined oil a day by 2020. From the start of the major expansions that
kicked off in 1996 to the conclusion of current planned construction in 2011, close to $100
billion will be spent by industry on the Alberta oil sands. All of this is staggering given
that in the early 1990s, not a single dollar of new investment was planned for the region
and that oil was selling for less than $20 a barrel. As this issue went to press, it was
going for $119 a barrel.
But in the early 1990s, Eric Newell, the former CEO of Syncrude and now Chancellor of the
University of Alberta, saw a different future for the oil sands. It was Newell who spearheaded
the formation of the National Oil Sands Task Force in 1995, which issued a report that year
calling for a new vision and scope in exploiting the sands. Newell and his task force made
the case, in Edmonton, Ottawa and Washington, D.C., that it was a resource in which it was
worth investing. “We pulled together a vision of what we thought was possible,” says Newell. “And
that was to triple production in 25 years and invest $21 billion to $25 billion.” He stops
and chuckles. “I’d stand up and say that, and a lot of people thought I was smoking something
funny. We were a bit off ! It took only eight years to triple production, and the industry
spent $30 billion. And now another $70 billion of investment is on the books, with production
projected for 10 times what it was then. None of us saw that happening, that’s for sure.”
|Comments on this article||Leave a comment|
Oil, gas, coal and nuclear power are not the means to sustain our planet.
Research and technology for cleaner energy alternatives must be looked at.
Canadians and the American people need to unite and make a stand, to stop oil production and further exploration. It is wreaking havoc in our oceans and our land. And all for the greed of $$$$.
You're neglecting the fact that the majority of the water is recycled for 1 m3 of synthetic crude oil, actual water withdrawals run at less than the 0.2 m3
This is a nightmare When you consider it takes 3 barrels of water to extract 1 barrel of oil. You can't drink oil. The multinational companies with their bottomless greed will find out too late that there won't be any water for their children and/or their children's children. That's a pretty ruthless legacy! The entire planet is being raped of its resources with reckless abandon. When will man ever learn? God help us all!
If one has to wait 100 more years to see what then will be, there will be very few left in the World that caused the damage to begin with. It is a disaster that will take a long time to recover. And these policies will put breaks on US wanting to pursue cleaner, renewable and energy efficient ways to address our needs.
Oh Please, save us your finger pointing! what your ignorance doesn't allow is that the oilsand mining areas are 100% reclaimable. Yes, once the oil is extracted all the filler is put back, trees are planted, animals return. In 100 yrs, no one will ever know these pits existed.
I will never again listen to anybody from Canada criticizing the US for our destructive energy policies and practices after witnessing the damage being done as Canadian oil companies rape the beautiful land of Alberta to produce the dirtiest form of fossil fuel known to mankind.
Canadians have lost all credibility on environmental protection by not openly opposing and stopping this disaster. What next? Will they destroy Banff and Jasper National Parks in pursuit of oil?
Enviromental AND physical disaster is the ALBERTA oil, greed
And here I thought you Canadians were better than us in a lot of ways, including ecology! Well, I guess it's still our (neighbors to the south) doing as we are buying the crude as quickly as you dig it up! Doom!