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The legacy of broken promises to protect water from tar sands operations

Danielle Droitsch

Posted March 28, 2013

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On the eve of the start of operations for a new massive tar sands mine, the promise of the Alberta and federal government to protect the critical waters of the region remains unfulfilled.  In less than two weeks, Imperial Oil will begin operations for its Kearl mine that will eventually push out 345,000 barrels of tar sands per day in the absence of a promise to ensure the protection of the Athabasca River.  In fact, there are a series of broken promises by the Alberta provincial and federal Canadian government to protect the critical watershed that surrounds the tar sands region.  And those broken promises should be considered as the U.S. government reviews whether to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The Kearl mine was approved in 2007 but with the specific understanding according to the decision approving the mine that measures to protect the river would be implemented.  These measures were to include a water management framework that protects river flows from excessive tar sands water withdrawals.  Today, a key element of that framework - an ecological base flow - has not been established and there are no measures in place to ensure that tar sands operators stop withdrawals from the river especially during low flows.  It is unacceptable that in nearly six years, there are still no measures in place to protect the Athabasca River from massive water diversions that leave the river dry.  The Alberta government has again failed to establish critical  environmental safeguards.  Instead, the provincial and federal government continue to mislead the public with false information claiming the existing Athabasca River Water Management Framework sets mandatory limits on withdrawals. 

Athabasca River

Photo Credit: Pembina Institute


The Canadian and provincial Alberta government’s failure to protect water in the tar sands region doesn’t stop with the issue of water withdrawals.  Just this week, industrial waste leaked from a tar sands facility operated by Suncor leading to a fierce public outcry.

First Nations communities that have lived in the region for thousands of years have sounded the alarm on these water problems for years and years.  Following the recent Suncor spill, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation traveled to Ottawa to oppose more tar sands pipelines that would enable the tar sands industry to expand.

“Our struggles are tied together because approvals of pipelines is approvals for expansion of tar sands in my traditional territory. This incident in Suncor’s operations is just another example of what’s at stake and the governments and industry’s failure to safeguard the environment and people. It also serves as a reminder of the weak environmental monitoring systems and the inability of the region to take on more development"  Chief Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

To be clear, the Suncor spill is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the tar sands industry’s water problems and the failure by the Canadian and provincial governments to establish vigorous protections for water and public health: 

Every single day, almost 3 million gallons of toxic waste leak from tar sands operations into the surrounding environment.  This information is according to the tar sands industry’s own reports to the Alberta government.

Despite claims that the Alberta government has stringent regulatory regimes to address the toxic waste generation from tar sands mines, mines continue to spew thousands of barrels of toxic waste daily that are not treated.  They are discharged into a series of toxic lakes that now contain over 5.2 billion barrels of toxic that now cover a city much larger than the size of Washington DC. 

Tar sands companies are not meeting regulations designed to limit the volume of toxic waste created by tar sands operations.  And yet, the provincial government will not enforce against those who are violating the rules.  With new mines being approved regularly like Imperial’s Kearl mine, by 2030 this volume of toxic tailing will continued to grow by 40 percent.

Research from the University of Alberta has revealed higher concentrations of toxic compounds (heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic compounds) downstream of oilsands development.  The media exposed the fact that federal government scientists were prevented from publicly speaking about the results.

Federal government research of lake sediments in the region surrounding the tar sands showed conclusively that tar sands development has been increasing carcinogenic compounds in lake ecosystems in the region. 

In fact, there is a growing wealth of scientific evidence that tar sands operations are having a diverse set of impacts on the ecology of watersheds near tar sands operations.  All of these impacts are happening in the absence of strict protections to limit and, if necessary, stop the legacy of toxic pollution that comes from the massive growth of tars operations.  This is precisely why the start of a new massive tar sands mine in the absence of a strict regulatory regime  is such clear evidence of the failure of the regulatory management system in Alberta.

And meanwhile, the tar sands industry continues to grow as a phenomenal pace with aspirations to increase production from 2 to as much as 9 million barrels a day.  The legacy of broken promises to establish strict measures to address the growing and negative impacts on the water resources of the tar sands region deserves more attention and scrutiny particularly as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is being reviewed by the U.S. State Department.

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Michael BerndtsonMar 28 2013 11:33 AM

Very good article.

The Imperial Oil facility expansion (aka Esso Canada a subsidiary of Exxonmobil) discussed in the post seems to have been designed for dual tar sands feed stock: surface mined and in situ mined/extracted. According to the 2011 Annual report the expansion was justified based on in situ mined tar sands. Basically, Imperial's holdings is too deep for surface mining so in situ will become the predominant feed stock. Here's the annual report and the information on the Kearl facility starts on page 6 of the report.

In situ, though it seems less disruptive than surface mining, may (I don't really know) mobilize constituents of tar sands more rapidly via subsurface routes then surface mining. The in situ process basically heats the tar in place using steam and collects these mobilized hydrocarbon constituents via extraction pipes acting as hoods and/or sumps. Heat input is high so the tar essentially gets distilled or retorted underground. Vapors may get collected from horizontal wells above the heating zone and multi-phase liquids recovered in wells within and below the heating zone. I have no idea if the heavy hydrocarbons remain as a fat happy solid within the sand formation or they too are mobilized. It would take an enormous amount of heat (energy) input to get the biggest of poly nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons moving on their own. Maybe big hydrocarbons get carried along with the steam condensate/hydrocarbon recoverable liquids.

This process in theory seems wonderful, but I'm wondering if all the mobilized hydrocarbon constituents of tar sands get collected in the subsurface extraction system? Or if some newly mobilized hydrocarbons are free to flow as a distinct phase with or dissolved in the groundwater? And does this groundwater feed the stream/river in question?

Michael BerndtsonMar 30 2013 10:30 AM

A very interesting article from Globe and Mail (of Canada) cited in an EcoWatch post on this subject:

Globe and Mail:

On in situ steam mining of tar sands (more to my point in the comment above):

"The oil is getting dirtier due to an increasing focus on deep oil sands development using steam, which causes more greenhouse-gas emissions. What Mr. Oliver also failed to note is that even his government’s own reports from Environment Canada have said that Canada will not meet its climate-pollution targets because of oil sands expansion. In fact, climate pollution from the oil sands has doubled in the last decade and is predicted to double again in the next decade if all the new development is allowed to go ahead."

Original EcoWatch article - very interesting as well, fyi:

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