TreeHugger has filled a great many virtual pages on the topic of Alberta tar sands, detailing time and time again the high environmental costs of extracting this so-called unconventional source of oil, which the Albertan government has bet much of its future on. Now the more august and staid body of the Royal Society of Canada has weighed in on the issue, issuing a new report which attempts to objectively assess the impact of past and future exploitation of this vast amount of fossil fuels.
Both tar sands proponents and opponents should pay attention because fingers are pointed at both sides for sometimes playing fast and loose with facts. Here's the nut of it:Are the Alberta tar sands the most environmentally destructive project on Earth, as has been repeatedly claimed (including on TreeHugger)? Far from it. Are exploiting them seriously damaging to the environment, in particular in terms of greenhouse gas intensity? Yes, and though technology may be able to improve this, it won't be not enough for Canada to meet its current (low) carbon emission reductions target. Are the water issues related to tar sands production overblown? Sometimes. Is there enough oversight of these operations. Nope.
Which boils down even further to:
For Canada and Alberta, the oil sands industry involves major environmental issues on many fronts which must be addressed as a high priority.
The report makes two strong statements contradicting campaigners' claims and several that broadly support them:
No Increase in Production Would Make Tar Sands Most Destructive Project
First, the Alberta tar sands are not the most environmentally destructive project on Earth.
The Royal Society says "the oil sands industry is no higher than third in industrial categories for air emissions of major criteria air pollutants" and between fifth and eighth for toxic emissions. A 500% increase in emissions would be required for tar sands production to move to the number one spot in any of these categories in Canada.
"No foreseeable oil sands growth scenario could lead to the oil sands industry being the largest category of industrial emitters in Canada, let alone the world, for any pollutant."
In terms of GHG emissions, tar sands production represents 5% of Canada's direct emissions, and 0.08% of estimated total greenhouse gas emissions.
On that basis, the report concludes that while continued oil sands production will make it very hard for Canada to meet its national emission reduction targets--which again it's worth pointing out, are in line with those of the US and far far below what science says is needed to minimize the impacts of climate change--on a global basis "elimination of oil sands GHG emissions will not eliminate or substantially lessen the immense challenge facing the world to reduce GHG emissions."
The report does comment on water use and contamination in this section, concluding that though there are substantial withdrawals from the Athabasca River, "it is not an unsustainable fraction of available water flow" and "consistent evidence the oil sands industry is a major polluter of surface waters has not been demonstrated. Pollution of groundwater is less certain..."
Spikes in Local Cancer Rate Not Linked With Tar Sands
Second, as for residents around Fort Chipweyan having high cancer rates and this being linked to tar sands production, the report concludes that the two are not linked.
Environmental contaminants at current levels of exposure are unlikely to cause major health impacts for the general population. Projected additional emissions from expanded operations are not likely to change this expectation. In particular, there is no credible evidence to support the commonly repeated media accounts of excess cancer in Fort Chipweyan being caused by contaminants released by oil sands operations, notably polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and arsenic. In particular, common references to PAHs in relation to human cancer risk have been loose and inconsistent with the scientific understanding of human cancer risk from this class of compounds.
We Don't Know If All Land Can Be Reclaimed - Water Use Not Unsustainable
The verdict on land reclamation and water use goes both ways, and often seems to be based on best-case scenarios for implementation of remediation techniques and, in some cases, overtly stated future technological developments.
In terms of tailing pond operation and remediation, the report says that improvements in tailing pond management are not keeping pace with industry expansion. Furthermore, and this is the more damning statement for the future of the industry even if stated in the least inflammatory way possible, "Reclamation and management options for wet landscapes derived from tailing ponds have been researched but are not adequately demonstrated." In other words, we just don't know with certainty that tailing ponds can ever be reclaimed and no tailing pond to date has fully been reclaimed.
For other land disturbed by these projects, uplands fare better than wetlands, and in either case "reclaimed conditions will resemble and function as natural landscapes, provided that the legislated requirements are fully implemented, but reclaimed conditions will not be identical to the pre-disturbance state."
As indicated above, the report does not believe water withdrawn from the Athabasca River to be occurring at unsustainable levels and future withdrawals can probably be managed. Statements on the threat to regional groundwater resources are more circumspect, with the general conclusion that more attention needs to be paid to this and more research done.
Greenhouse Gas Intensity Has Improved, But It Will Remain a Big Problem
Which leaves us with greenhouse gas intensity of tar sands production, which even in the most conservative prior estimates is several times higher than for conventional oil production.
Repeated a number of times is the stat about how much improvement has been made: Greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output from tar sands production have dropped 39% since 1990 according to official figures--with a laundry list of improvements undertaken to reduce this aspect of their environmental impact. However, "these reductions in emissions intensities achieved by improved operation and process technologies have been more than offset by the rapidly growing rate of bitumen production and upgrading."
Increasing GHG emissions from growing bitumen production creates a major challenge for Canada to meet our international commitments for overall GHG emission reduction that current technology options do not resolve.
As for deploying carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions, the report concludes plainly: "Carbon capture and storage (CCS)...does not appear to be very feasible for oil sands production in general and in-situ in particular...Substantial questions remain to be answered about the feasibility and reliability of CCS in all applications."
As for technology ever fully mitigating the destruction caused by tar sands production, RSC says matter-of-factly (and perhaps obviously):
Technology cannot reduce the environmental impacts/footprint to zero in the oil sands industry any more than it can in any other heavy industry (e.g., mining, smelting, forestry, power generation).
The report goes into far more detail than this, including on the financial risks associated with land reclamation and other aspects of these projects. Take your pick on further reading, based on length and inclination:
Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada's Oil Sands Industry - Executive Summary
Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada's Oil Sands Industry - Full Report
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More on the Alberta Tar Sands:
350 More Ducks Killed in Canada's Toxic Tar Sands Tailing Ponds
Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth
National Geographic Slams Tar Sands - Canadian Politicians Pissed
Fossil Fools Gold: Tar Sands & Oil Shale Eco-Impact Explained
Canadian Tar Sands Look Like Tolkein's Mordor Says UN Water Advisor Wikileaks Reveals Hushed Concern Over Tar Sands Oil in US State Dept
Economic, Environmental Costs of Developing Tar Sands & Oil Shale 'Unthinkable'