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Posted on August 31, 2010

Getting Stuck in the Tar Sands

The next time you fill your tank at the gas station, think about where the oil you’re consuming came from. Chances are it came from the oil tar sands of northeastern Alberta, Canada, the single biggest source of imports to the United States and the second largest recoverable oil reserve in the world.


In 2008, Toronto-based Environmental Defence published a report calling the vast tar sands development “the most destructive project on earth.”


That assessment is now getting some support from a new study in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It finds significant levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury—all toxic inorganic elements—polluting the Athabasca river system from the oil sands development.


University of Albert biologist David Schindler, a co-author, said the discharges are much higher than industry and government agencies have acknowledged, violate Canada’s Fisheries Act, and could concentrate to more dangerous levels in fish.


Last fall, Schindler and several colleagues documented significant releases of potentially toxic “polycyclic aromatic compounds,” some of which cause cancer or reproductive harm. (See the Centers for Disease Control summary here.)


Oil field developments in Canada’s tar sands are notorious among environmentalists for the damage they do. Extracting the thick tar requires strip mining the surface forest or peat bogs, creating slurries with tens of millions of cubic meters of water (more than twice the consumption of the city of Calgary), and using steam heat to extract various petroleum products.


Producing the steam requires burning huge amounts of natural gas, creating CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Canadian oil sands developers will consume an estimated 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day by 2015. As a result, oil from this region has a carbon footprint up to 20 percent higher than other oil, not far below coal.


And what’s left over from the mining are tailing “ponds” filled with toxic chemicals. As Environmental Defence commented in its 2008 report, “To describe them as “ponds” however, is to be guilty of understatement. These masses of toxic soup have now grown so big that they can be seen by the naked eye from space. Indeed, they now include the largest dams on the planet . . .”


Royal Dutch Shell announced recently that it will begin testing new technology to reduce the size of its waste pools and will license the process to its competitors at no cost. The industry reportedly plans to spend a billion dollars next year on reducing its toxic runoff.


But the industry has a long way to go to clean up its act. The Canadian government’s environmental department reported earlier this month that the volume of arsenic and lead dumped into the tailings ponds has grown 26 percent over the past four years.


And according to one news summary of the data, “The companies also released huge amounts of pollutants into the air last year, including 70,658 tonnes of volatile organic compounds, which can damage the function of human organs and nervous systems, and 111,661 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to acid rain.”

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