Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The dirty oil in Alberta's tar sands

Yesterday was World Water Day, and to mark the day, the event, Water: Challenges and Opportunities took place in Vancouver.

The opening guest speaker was Canadian author Andrew Nikiforuk talking about the impact of the Tar Sands on water quality. Nikiforuk is author of the book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil And The Future Of A Continent.

In the book, Nikiforuk discusses the disastrous environmental, social, and political costs of the tar sands and argues forcefully for change.

Canada has one third of the world’s oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world’s largest energy project in Fort McMurray where, rather than shooting up like a fountain in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the sticky bitumen is extracted from the earth. Providing almost 20 percent of America’s fuel, much of this dirty oil is being processed in refineries in the Midwest. This megaproject is polluting the air, poisoning the water, and destroying boreal forest at a rate almost too rapid to be imagined.

A recent report by the Pembina Institute, looks into the major drawbacks of steam-driven projects which are used to extract crude from Canada's oil sands and are often held up as more environmentally friendly than mining.

The Alberta-based Pembina Institute compared nine projects that employ "in situ" extraction methods -- where steam is pumped into the earth to liquefy the extra-heavy crude so it can be pumped to the surface -- and found all need to make improvements to varying degrees.

"The impacts of in situ have sort of been framed as low-impact oil sands development, but when you look at the data that isn't actually borne out," said Simon Dyer, one of the authors of the report, called "Drilling Deeper: the In Situ Oil Sands Report Card".

"Some of them indicate actually higher impact on a per-barrel basis than mining, for instance greenhouse gas emissions and sulfur-dioxide emissions and some of the cumulative impacts on land."

Projects were judged on general environmental management, land use, air emissions, water use and impact on climate change, and then given an overall score.

Open-pit mining gets most of the attention in the oil sands of northern Alberta, the largest crude deposits outside the Middle East. But the lion's share of the crude is too deep to mine, and must be extracted using in situ techniques.

"The main message is there's clearly room for improvement," Dyer said. "There's a wide range of performance, we don't have half the regulations that would necessarily drive implementation of best practices that are there currently."

Source: More regulation needed for Canada oil sands, Reuters

1 comment:

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