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Monday, May 05, 2008

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.


ProudTory said...

guess what Dave: you libruhls LOST the election.

so shut up and stop posting these anti-alberta/anti-growth screeds.

Anonymous said...

What are tarsands? I know what oilsands are, but I never heard of tarsands...did you make it up? sounds like little children making up names for things, kinda amusing, albeit juvenile for someone who likes to be taken seriously.

daveberta said...

"What are tarsands? I know what oilsands are, but I never heard of tarsands...did you make it up?"

Alberta government reports that I've read from before the 1990s refer to them as both the oil sands as tar sands. It really is pure semantics, so it shouldn't really matter what you call it. I call it tar sands, you call it oil sands. Don't fret, anonymous.

jerrin said...

I agree with Dave. Rather than debating language, let's debate the issues.

Our economy is being driven by these oil/tar sands but we owe it to future generations to have a serious conversation about how we are exploiting these resources. There are a lot of people who have come from outside the province to work here, and don't care about what happens to Alberta when we're done with the sands, but I'm planning on sticking around and DO care.

Water use is something that isn't talked about enough. When you see how close those tailing ponds are to the Athabasca River, it is hard to believe that the chemicals in the lakes aren't seeping into the river system - and the food chain of northern Alberta.

Dry tailings storage could be a short-term alternative to tailing ponds, and have less of a negative effect on the ecosystem. Current tailing ponds are bad news and finding a more responsible way of handling the waste should be a priority.

Anonymous said...

Well, considering it is an actual mixture of oil and sand, i think oilsands is appropriate. I mean, we don't call you Poofy do we?? We could, but it wouldn't be accurate. So how about a little accuracy?

Anonymous said...

Things have changed since pre-1990, Dave.

The term "tar sands" has become the rallying point for those who vehemently oppose economic activity relating to oil in Northern Alberta (Greenpeace, the NDP, etc.)

An intelligent discussion is fine, but use of the common name for the resource will go a long way in boosting one's credibility.

If Kevin Taft can call them by their proper name, surely you can too.

daveberta said...

All fair points.

It's probably more accurate to call them "bituminous sands."

Anonymous said...

I'm on board with bituminous sands. It sounds like a rock band.

key urns said...

"The term "tar sands" has become the rallying point for those who vehemently oppose economic activity relating to oil in Northern Alberta (Greenpeace, the NDP, etc.)

An intelligent discussion is fine, but use of the common name for the resource will go a long way in boosting one's credibility."

Didn't you hear? Dave's a key conspirator in the NDP-Greenpeace conspiracy. :-P

I don't really care who calls it what, but they are more oily than tarry.

Anonymous said...

jerrin: what exactly does dry tailing storage entail? I can imagine that reclamation of current wet tailing areas to their original state will be near impossible so if future ones can be avoided it would be positive.

I heard that there were more ducks that escaped.

Anonymous said...

There's some good Oil Sands background information at

Anonymous said...

Well, I am glad we sorted out the terminology thing. Bituminous sands indeed. Either way, a sticky place to end up.

Now, because of the dead ducks, the Minister of Energy just looks like a lame duck - flapping alot (particularly the lips) but not much "lift" opinion-poll wise.

And plenty of "Tories" are upset about the dead ducks, so the fact the Liberals (and the NDP and Greensalong with them) lost the election seems highly irrelevant to me.

You have to admit, the Stelmach government is not having a good few weeks....

Anonymous said...

Ironic isn't it? Our Premier hails from the town of Andrew. One of Andrew's claims to fame is a giant mallard duck.

Greenpeace should go soak it in oil.

Anonymous said...

Hey again Dave,

Great article. Don't let Tory hate mongers drag you down. Our approach to the Tar Sands will have impacts for several generations and careful thought is definitely required.

Anonymous said...

"It's time that Albertans took ownership of this debate and brought it in to the kitchens and coffee shops of the province."

Thing is, most ALBERTANS are employed either directly or indirectly by the oil industry if not the oilsands themselves. ALBERTANS seem comfortable with the costs of the oilsands.

"The term "tar sands" has become the rallying point for those who vehemently oppose economic activity relating to oil in Northern Alberta (Greenpeace, the NDP, etc.)"

Exactly. When you choose to use the term "tarsands" it automatically aligns you with the whackos and hurts any credibility that you would like to suggest. This is Alberta afterall, you don't need to disrespect Albertans - if you want the attention of everyday regular folk you have to meet them on their terms.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave

As a card carrying provincial(and federal)member of the PC Party I agree with your overall message,which unfortunately was overshadowed by the wordsmithing.Unlike "proudtory"I fear no such debate.It actually may engage the voter so much so they will take the time to vote the next election.We will probably still kick your butt but at least the turnout will be larger.

When we consider the latest occurence at Conocco Philips with the open "waste water" pond it got em to thinking that we are bowing too much to industry.What do you think they would say to you if you lived on an acreage and didn't have a septic tank but rather a large open hole for the "waste water" to be stored.

If we can design containers for fuel and nucleur waste,why don't they design one for toxic ponds.They could still run their filter system through them??

If we don't hold industry accountable,the next apology will be in reference to avoidable deaths....Melodramatic??Maybe,but I wouldn't want to be proven wrong!!!

Kevin said...

I agree with proudtory,

The conservatives WON! Why do you keep posting as if there should be a real democratic opposition? Alberta = oil. BIG OIL. Oil = $$$.

Stop complaining and drink the Kool-Aid.


Anonymous said...

Could you imagine if this tragic accident had occurred two years ago during an Oilers-Ducks playoff series? The storylines there would just have been too much.

Interesting commentary on the media though when over 22,000 people so far have been confirmed dead in Myanmar, and yet 500 ducks still seem more important.

Darren said...

The issue is one of economy versus environment. I'd hazard a guess that the majority of people who oppose the oilsands live on incomes that have nothing to do with the oil and gas industry. They might be singing from a different songbook if there was some connection. For a good percentage of Albertans (if not a majority) their incomes rely directly or indirectly on the oil and gas industry. Oil from oilsands is already more expensive to produce than conventional oil so increasing environmental requirements will make it more expensive. (keep in mind, heavy oil does not earn the same per barrel revenues as conventional oil. There's always a differential - sometimes as high as 50%)

There is room for improvement and the industry is continually making advances but it's not as easy as shutting it down as Greenpeace would have you believe.

Also, the Fort Mac oilsands existed near or on-surface, has been for centuries. There were some accounts in the 1800s of the indians using the black pitch to waterproof canoes. So "seepage" has been an ongoing process, albeit not to the degree that it is now.

Grande Prairie said...

Congratulations Dave for getting angry conservatives to read your blog and even participate! Like furious bullied children, they demonstrate clear examples of how NOT to engage in citizen debate.

One could very easily argue that the term "oilsands" is actually the LESS appropriate term, as it's been established primarily through continuous use by PC party members, the media, and industry itself. This is common knowledge and others have followed suit mainly to avoid this ridiculous argument.

The rebranding of tar-laden, bitumenous sand into some kind of magical, easily refined petroleum reserve IS a major problem though. It quietly dismisses the enormous technical problems inherent in the process, problems that have plagued the industry for over a century and that, until quite recently, actually rendered the process uneconomical and even irrational.

Only with skyrocketing conventional oil prices and huge government handouts have they succeeded in turning this intensely energy-consuming, waste-producing process into a profitable enterprise. And until even more recently, these conditions were enough to eclipse the notion of conservation that is becoming increasingly recognized as incompatible with Canada's Oil Sands.

Seriously people, they're burning natural gas and boiling river water to rinse oil out of dirt up there. You'd have to be insane to allow your government to base an entire economy on this process. If tarsands are the engine of your economy, you'd better start shopping around for a new engine because you're only setting yourselves up for disaster.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Dave, like proudtory said, "the libruhls LOST the election." We shouldn't be talking about issues outside of an election campaign, and apparently we shouldn't be talking about issues during an election campaign either.

Seriously, was that guy a Republican? 'You're either with us or against us.'
What the hell is wrong with this province? It makes me sad...
They've broken my spirit Dave, just like they set out to do. Congrats a-holes.

Anonymous said...

Oilsands would imply that in fact oil was seeping from the ground in Ft. McMurray.

If any of you all have ever been to Wood Buffalo County, you would surely know that it is not oil that is being scooped out of the sands of the Athabasca, but bitumen - a compound more conventionally associated with asphalt than motor oil.

The term 'oil' is highly politicized, both on the left and the right, and 'oilsands' is purely a legitimizing discourse promoting the irreparable damage we are inflicting on our home/selves in the name of profit.

Despite how many times you google it (thanks to a concerted effort by industry and the PAB)- it has historically been labeled as tarsands - or in many cases, bituminous sands. Regardles of how much much kool aid you have drunk, it remains so.

Regardless of our political affiliation, surely we are a concerned and inquisitive people re: our natural heritage and its health? Our wallets are not the only things vying for our attention.

dot said...

If anyone believes things are actually going to change after this, they must be loony.

The tailing ponds will leave unprecedented and unreclamable environmental devastation to Alberta's north but no politician in a position to do so will seriously stand up and question them.

Dow said...

I have seriously loved the past week since the ducks died, which was a tradegy for sure, because the government and oil corporations have pretended to care. They really don't care which is obvious but the huge media spotlight has made them look like jackasses, which is funny to me. They given heartfelt apologies but no real action is going to be taken. I hope the new "independent" (hopefully more independent then the PC chosen members of elections alberta) commision so that we can really see the impact of the "bituminous sands" on our beloved environment.

When all is said an done, and communities have sky rocketing cancer rates...i bet syncrude is going to be a tough company to find and the Alberta tax payers are going to have to pay a hefty sum to clean up these tar ponds. (look at sydney nova soctia's tar ponds as evidence)

One Alberta Voter said...

What the debate of the past couple of weeks has demonstrated is that there are a broad range of Albertans, from different backgrounds, expertise and ideological leanings, who share a concern with the environmental impacts of our resource development economy, particularly the tarsands. Unfortunately, it has not been as clearly demonstrated that the provincial government is prepared to grapple with those issues, to encourage public dialogue, and ultimately to act with leadership.

We have been hearing for over a year now that Premier Stelmach has wisdom and integrity, and is willing to tackle some of the tough issues his predecessor ignored. Up to the provincial election there was a question of whether Stelmach had the political weight to do this (though he did seem to handle the royalty review with a new openness. The election answered that question clearly. If in fact he and his caucus are going to show new wisdom and leadership NOW is the time to give clear indication of it. A lot of Albertans are watching and waiting.

Anonymous said...

Carbon recycling system closer to converting CO2 gas into valuable products

QUEBEC CITY, April 25 /CNW Telbec/ - Centre de recherche industrielle du
Québec (CRIQ) is a key participant in a network that aims to fast-track Mother
Nature's own greenhouse gas recycling process with a system that would handle
large volumes of CO2 from industry.
Scientists at the Quebec research organization are working through
Innoventures Canada (I-CAN) with researchers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and
Manitoba. Together, they are getting closer to creating a system that would
convert carbon dioxide diverted from industrial facilities into value-added
products using Earth's oldest plant life - micro-algae.
I-CAN is a not-for-profit consortium of ten Canadian research
corporations who have joined together for key strategic projects. The
organization kicked off its annual meetings in Quebec City April 24 and 25
with an update on its CARS project - Carbon Algae Recycling System. CARS
proposes to feed flue gas (CO2, NOx, etc.) directly from industry into ponds
to feed the growth of micro-algae, which would then be harvested and processed
into value-added products such as ethanol, bio-diesel or fertilizer.
"In essence, the goal of CARS is to fast-track Mother Nature's own
process of using plants to soak up carbon from the atmosphere," says Denis
Beaulieu, current chairman for I-CAN and special consultant with CRIQ. "Algae
growth research isn't new, but our goal is. Other algae projects are aimed at
creating bio-fuels. The goal of CARS is to provide industry with a
sustainable, affordable way to deal with their greenhouse gas emissions."
The base case chosen for the preliminary CARS work is sized to consume up
to 30 per cent of the greenhouse gases produced by the average 300 megawatt
coal-fired power plant. "That's the base case, and we'll work upwards to
larger capacities from there," says Beaulieu. He predicts the sale of
byproducts like ethanol or fertilizer from harvesting the algae would help
offset the cost of operating the CARS algae systems.
Since announcing the CARS project last year, scientists from four
different provinces have made head-way in proving this concept could work in
Canada in a cost-effective way.
"Until now, it was believed Canada's climate and light conditions
wouldn't support these kinds of algae projects," says John McDougall,
vice-chairman of I-CAN from the Alberta Research Council. "We've now
discovered the less intense sunlight in Canada is actually beneficial to the
growth of algae, and we are devising concepts of how covered pond systems
could work economically in our climate."
The comprehensive research program is taking a two-pronged approach. The
biological piece of this puzzle will identify a strain of algae that thrives
on the specific chemical composition of flue gas, at a target temperature,
given the angle of sunlight in Canada. On the engineering side, the
researchers have already determined that neither the existing photobioreactor
nor the open pond algae systems would deal with large enough volumes of CO2.
I-CAN partner researchers are now developing a hybrid covered pond system that
maintains the consistent environment required by the chosen strains of algae.
National demand for such a project is mounting. Governments are targeting
industries to reduce their greenhouse gases in the coming years, leaving
industry scrambling for ways to cut their emissions in a way that's good for
the environment and their bottom line.
Participating organizations for the CARS project include Centre de
recherche industrielle du Québec (CRIQ), Alberta Research Council (ARC),
Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) and Manitoba Industrial Technology Centre
(ITC). The project is currently funded by the Government of Canada through
Natural Resources Canada, the Province of Alberta through the Alberta Energy
Research Institute, Alberta Bio-fuel Fund and the Alberta Life Sciences
Institute, as well as the Province of Quebec. Industry partners include Mosaic
Potash, Suncor Energy, EnCana, Graymont Mining, New Brunswick Power, EPCOR,
Petro-Canada and Shell Canada.

About Innoventures Canada:

I-CAN (Innoventures Canada) is a national organization linking Canada's
provincial research organizations and other specialized applied research and
development partners across the country to create a critical mass. I-CAN
improves Canada's performance in commercializing research by eliminating
duplication of resources and strengthening the linkages among R&D service
providers, government, and industry.
-%RE: 1

ja said...

According to Ed Stelmach, the Liberal Official Opposition is now "subversive" for opposing his government's $25-million oilsands rebranding advertising campaign. How the hell is this guy still known as "Honest Ed????"

Stelmach brands Liberals 'subversive' for attack on ads

Premier argues PR campaign shows Alberta pride
Jason Markusoff, The Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - Premier Ed Stelmach condemned the Liberal opposition as "subversive" and suggested Tuesday the party's MLAs lack pride in Alberta, as he fervently defended his proposed $25-million government public-relations campaign.

It was one of the premier's nastiest barbs to date, using a term that invokes anti-government radicalism and has been more commonly used in the legislature to refer to terrorists or cited by the Chinese government to arrest critics of the upcoming Olympic Games.

An Alberta political scientist found the remarks uncharacteristically blunt and arrogant, while the Liberal at the receiving end said he's been called names by Tories, but never subversive.

"It clearly shows that the premier would like to have a one-party state in Alberta," Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald said. "It goes to show he has very little respect for democracy.

"There were lots of citizens in this province who voted for someone other than the Progressive Conservative party, and he seems to want to forget that. I think his 72-seat majority has gone to his head."

Stelmach made the comments during a budget debate in the legislature. Amid a testy exchange about the upcoming $25-million Alberta "branding" push, which the Liberals consider propaganda, MacDonald insisted to the premier that the official opposition has a role to keep the government accountable.

"The role of opposition in a democratic government is very important, but it's not to be subversive," Stelmach replied. "There's a big difference. It's a big difference."