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Alberta Oil Sands

time for some straight talk on alberta’s tar sands.

Syncrude Canada President and CEO Tom Katinas has offered “a heartfelt and sincere apology” after the nearly 500 ducks were killed after landing in Syncrude’s Aurora north tailing ponds. Syncrude’s apology is fine, but it doesn’t address the real problem of the tar sands and tailing ponds.

The tar sands are driving Alberta’s economic engine, and in a time of continental economic insecurity, Alberta’s can play a central role in providing some economic stability. This said, the future environmental costs of how the tar sands are currently extracted are too high for my liking.

It’s time that Albertans took ownership of this debate and brought it in to the kitchens and coffee shops of the province. The real debate around the tar sands isn’t about money or power, it’s about Alberta’s future.

The death of nearly 500 ducks and their contamination of the food chain is just the tip of the iceberg and opens an opportunity for Albertans to engage in a wider debate on the issue, much like they did during the resource royalty debate of 2007.

The effects of current tar sands extraction can be seen in a number of areas. Tar sands development has caused the rapid decline of indigenous animal species such as Woodlands Caribou herds, to name one. Some groups have suggested that the government compensate this loss by designating new protected areas to protect the species in the area.

Current tar sands operations also use an unsustainable amount of water from the Athabasca River basin – it currently takes up to 4.5 barrels of water to extract and upgrade a one barrel of bitumen from a tar sands mine. Companies extracting the tar sands are currently allowed to continue extracting water from the Athabasca River, even when river levels are at sitting at dangerously low levels.

Larry Pratt warned of the overuse of water and the resulting tailing ponds in the tar sands in his 1976 book, The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil:

Another severe problem – as with most synthetic fuel projects – is that the existing technology will consume and pollute enormous volumes of fresh water from the Athabasca, only a portion of which can be treated and returned to the river. Disposal of the liquid wastes or tailings left over from the hot water extractions process constitutes the worst single ecological problem in the operation. At GCOS the plant draws in from 6,000 to 9,000 of fresh water the Athabasca every minute, but it returns a good deal less – the difference being stored in the steadily growing tailing ponds. The magnitude of this problem can be grasped from the fact that the tailings ponds being planned for Syncrude. Shell and the other plants will each cover nearly ten square miles of land. The tailings stream is composed of sand, hot water, unextracted oil, fine mineral and clay particles, and some highly toxic chemicals used in extraction. The water is so contaminated that much of it can neither be reused nor returned to the river. Another problem is that the clay particles take a very long time to settle and linger in a state of suspension, thus delaying recycling and reclamation. The result of this could be a truly massive accumulation of oily, polluted waste in large lakes on every developed lease. The GCOS tailings pond sits precariously on the edge of the river, and any serious break in a dyke or seepage underground could cause the ecological ruin of the Athabasca River – a major tributary of the whole Mackenzie system. Whether these oily, heated waste ponds will constitute a hazard to migrating birds is open to speculation. What is certain, however, is that the tailings problem will put pressure on the fresh water supply of the Athabasca: twenty plants would consume up to forty percent of all the river’s monthly flow. The planned in situ steam injection plants will also consume immense amount of available water and have an unknown effect on the groundwaters of the region.

Over the month of May, in hopes of generating some constructive debate on the tar sands, I will be writing about some of the important challenges facing Albertans on this issue. If we are going to allow our tar sands to be extracted, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that it be done in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Don’t hesitate to join the debate.

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