Higher Pollution from Alberta Tar Sands

Alberta Tar Sands

Last year we reported that the Alaskan gas pipeline, touted as necessary for American energy independence, would actually be transporting a lot of the gas to Canada's Alberta tar sands", where the gas would fuel oil extraction from bitumen, an energy intensive, elaborate process for getting oil. The oil will eventually help fuel US needs.

Extracting oil from the tar sands is difficult, expensive, and dirty.1 But as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, extraction from the tar sands becomes a more economical option. Bitumen production increased from 482,000 barrels in 1995, to 1.3 million barrels a day in 2008, and is expected to reach 2 to 2.9 million barrels a day by 2020.2 Extraction operations increased in area to 530km2 (205mi2) in 2007.

Now a study from University Alberta released in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), finds that the tar sand extraction projects are dirtier than thought.2 Previous surveys done by the industry found that the tar sand operations didn't increase downstream levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) -- chemicals (some carcinogenic) released both naturally and through mining operations.

Schindler et al independently investigated water pollution from the tar sands. Testing water from the Athabasca River, Lake, Delta and tributaries, their findings contradict previous studies by showing increased PACs. The authors found that the levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) are higher downstream of mining activity, and greater in the summer than winter months. They also sampled snowpack, where they found significant particulate deposits.

Currently, the industry monitors itself, and the Alberta government somewhat audits the reports. Schindler observed to the journal Nature 3 what many recognize as problems with industry self-monitoring, it's "sort of like abolishing the police and asking people to pull over if they see they're speeding and report themselves." The PNAS authors recommend that the federal government take over monitoring pollution from the bitumen extraction operations.

Reports of like this are bad news to some Canadians who are worried about impressions and bad publicity around the tar sands, especially with the increased international attention due to Copenhagen. As University of Alberta energy economist Joseph Doucet put it: put it, "God help us if this becomes like baby seals."


1 To get a sense of it, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert's article in the New Yorker, "Unconventional Crude."

2 Schindler DW et al "Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and it tributaries" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0912050106

3 Jones, N. "Tar sands mining linked to stream pollution" Nature www.nature.com | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1127

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