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Jaw-dropping Shell Filings Undercut Tar Sands Industry Rhetoric

Josh Mogerman

Posted September 12, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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There is no shortage of messaging from Big Oil trumpeting efforts to green “the Patch,” which is the euphemistic term applied to Alberta’s tar sands mine and melt sites. They underplay the carbon impacts of what has been termed “the dirtiest oil on the planet” and trot out fancy technologies and plans that have yet to be put into action at industrial scale. And while there is a rosy picture painted for us Stateside, the business pages in Canada tend to lay bare the galling details of tar sands infrastructure pretty openly. There’s a great example of this today from the Globe & Mail’s excellent reporter Nathan VanderKlippe.

Alberta has just put new pollution caps in place and despite all the nice talk of cleaning up the tar sands,  industry is bucking up against them. Here’s the assessment that comes out of Shell’s filings for their proposed new Jackpine mine in which they basically say, “our mine isn’t so bad, but if things continue in tar sands land at the current rate, it may get ugly!” A few choice tidbits from the G&M:

“Now, however, the Shell report projects that if the industry continues on its current course, it will run past annual limits on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the area studied. Those substances contribute to acid rain, and the projection suggests Alberta will be forced to confront whether it is willing to act in the name of the environment, or move the yardsticks to preserve its bedrock industry.

The Shell document suggests the impact of the emissions will be tangible, identifying 23 lakes that will exceed their “critical load” for acidity.

High acidity can deaden a lake over time. With proper monitoring, impacts can be seen inside of a decade, and “as acidification progresses, eventually all fishes and molluscs are eliminated and biodiversity can be reduced considerably,” said David Schindler, a University of Alberta professor who is a leading expert on water in the province.

Though the impact of the Jackpine expansion itself is relatively small against the broad landscape, Shell says between its mine and other projects, some 9e per cent of wetlands and forests in the region will be lost or altered. Animals will also be affected. The Shell document catalogues an expected habitat decline of 34 per cent for barred owls, 13 per cent for beavers, 11 per cent for black bears, 19 per cent for Canada lynx, 49 per cent for Canada warblers, 18 per cent for wolverines and, most strikingly, the potential clearing of woodland caribou, a threatened species, from the area.

“Woodland caribou populations appear to be declining to extirpation,” the document says.

If those impacts aren’t  enough for Albertans to think twice about the current direction, the rule of law might be. I think Simon Dyer at Pembina sums it up nicely in the article when he notes:

Regulators “will need to start turning down projects to stay under the limits, or they’re seriously going to have to ratchet back on the performance of all the existing operators to try to get those pollutants down to levels to enable the industry to grow.”

Even as tar sands boosters in the US downplay the impacts of tar sands, the truth is getting harder and harder to ignore. Lakes rendered incapable of supporting life and extirpated critters undercut the industry’s rhetoric.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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