Alberta's Oil Sands: Hard Evidence, Missing Data, New Promises

By Weinhold, Bob | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Alberta's Oil Sands: Hard Evidence, Missing Data, New Promises


Weinhold, Bob, Environmental Health Perspectives


Pitched battles are a regular occurrence in northern Alberta, Canada, as development of the provinces oil sands continues to expand. One ongoing battle--with another salvo launched in February 2011 with the leak of a European Commission report (1)--concerns how dirty oil sands are, relative to other fuels. Another concerns the influence of the oil sands industry in monitoring its own activity. (2) In an effort to cut through the rhetoric of health advocates, industry representatives, environmentalists, government officials, and local residents, the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) selected and covered expenses for an expert panel to winnow out the facts.

In a report issued 15 December 2010 (3) the panel cited substantial evidence that efforts to extract oil from the Alberta deposits have degraded air, land, and water quality to varying degrees. The extent of the degradation is sometimes controversial; water quality data, in particular, are subject to differing interpretations and attributions of causality. However, the panel says that, based on publicly available evidence, there appear to be no significant human health threats to the general population either now or from development anticipated in the next decade or so.

But the panel also warns that their conclusions come with a major caveat: there are major gaps in health and environmental data, risk assessments, government oversight, information transparency, industry efforts, and disaster preparedness. The health of the region could hinge on these gaps being addressed, particularly since, according to Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 97% of projected oil extraction and processing is still to come.

After the RSC panel reviewed reams of publicly available information on factors such as health status, air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land disturbance, and energy and water consumption, it concluded that "[t]he claim by some critics of the oil sands industry that it is the most environmentally destructive project on earth is not supported by the evidence. However, for Canada and Alberta, the oil sands industry involves major environmental issues on many fronts which must be addressed as a high priority." (3p293)

Digging and Drilling

Sprawling across much of northern Alberta's boreal forest under an area a little smaller than the U.S. state of Illinois lies a valuable blend of bitumen, sand, minerals, and other materials. (4) For centuries, native peoples (5) valued the tarry blend for repairing canoes. Today, improving technology has made it possible to extract the bitumen and process it into products similar to those produced from crude oil. With today's technology, about 27 billion [m.sup.3]--or around 10%--of the estimated bitumen deposits can be economically extracted. (4)

That puts Canada's oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's 42 billion [m.sup.3] and a little ahead of Iran's 23 billion. (6) By 2025, bitumen extraction is expected to rise 2.3 times over 2010 activity. (7) No one is willing to hazard a guess about peak activity timing or magnitude because investments are driven by unpredictable factors such as world oil prices, future technological advances, government regulation, development of alternative energy sources, and world events such as terrorism and climate change.

Extracting oil from the sands is expensive, but the 40 or so companies working the fields are finding it lucrative, with net profits of $22.8 billion in 2008. (3p3) Preprofit expenses include payments to the Government of Alberta: $3.8 billion in 2008 alone compared with $11.9 billion over the preceding 10 years. (3p3) Alberta has had a financial stake in the oil sands for about 80 years, since the Canadian federal government transferred ownership of most natural resources to their respective provinces. (3p17)

Surface mining is the only feasible process for extracting bitumen deposits down to a depth of 75 m.

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Alberta's Oil Sands: Hard Evidence, Missing Data, New Promises
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