Oil sands pollutants

According to University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler, Alberta’s tar sands industry is spewing more pollutants into the Athabasca River, its tributaries and its watershed than previously estimated.

Mr. Schindler says his team’s findings counters claims from the oil industry and government that pollutants including mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium are a result of natural seepage of the bitumen.

Some of the heavy metals interact with organic pollutants, which can make them more toxic. Last year the research team found carcinogens similar to those released by the recent BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In other oil sands related news, Ecologist Kevin Timoney has said Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are killing birds at a far higher rate than government and industry figures indicate. In an article published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Mr. Timoney says the annual mortality is in the range of 458 to 5,029 birds and that is an unknown fraction of true mortality. Self-reported data from industry indicate an annual mortality of 65 birds.

Last year, a study by Mr. Timoney found concentrations of ammonia, aluminium, arsenic, lead and uranium were higher downstream of one of the oil sands tailing ponds than upstream.

How many times have we heard companies and government say everything is fine when it comes to some sort of environmental issue when it isn’t? How bad with the problems have to get before the issues are fully acknowledged? Or more accurately, how much money will need to be squeezed out of the tar sands before there will be some “revelation” that there are serious problems.

I’ve seen aerial photos of some of these tar sands operations and they are eerily reminiscent of Mordor from Lord Of The Rings, a “dying land not yet dead“. This was previously quite beautiful country, boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs).

This tar sands oil extraction is also incredibly energy intensive. It takes two to four tons of landscape to be dug up to extract a single barrel of oil and between two to 4 barrels of water are also needed to produce one barrel of crude.

The oilsands are a real money spinner for Canada, providing many jobs .. but at what cost?

We can’t just point the finger at Canada either as the oil extracted from the tar sands isn’t just used in Canada. According to information from the U.S. Department of the Interior, approximately 20% of U.S. crude oil and products come from Canada, and a substantial portion of this amount comes from tar sands. Greenpeace Canada says tar sands oil is also piped to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas and from there it is transported to ports in Britain and Europe.

The sad thing is as we move further into the Peak Oil period, our continued addiction to the stuff will see even more environmental degradation and more bloodshed; and in that respect, we all share the blame.

Lear more about Alberta’s tar sands