Oil sands, cancer, and government greenwashing

Oil sands, cancer, and government greenwashing

Oil sands are unquestionably bad for the environment. They are one of the most politicized fossil fuels on the planet ever since oil prices rose post-2003 making the deposits profitable to extract. Environmentalists loathe them, blackening their name: Naomi Klein describes them as a “parched, gray desert stretching to the horizon….the earth skinned alive”. Economists laud them as they account for 19% of Canadian exports, and stimulate almost every region in Canada with economic growth, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute. Like no other issue, oil sands dichotomises people and the Internet; the funding for many studies disputes their neutrality.


The basics

Oil sands and tar sands are neither composed of oil nor tar: they consist of bitumen, a highly viscous hydrocarbon deposit, found in Alberta (Canada), the Orinoco Basin (Venezuela), Utah (USA), and parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. 70.8% of the world’s oil sands, however, are found in Alberta where they are currently extracted. They are an unconsolidated sandstone deposit, uplifted in the same geological event that formed the Rocky Mountains, so saturated with bitumen that the sand and clay of the sediment has not lithified into sandstone, even though they lie some 15-65 m below the surface.

The economics of extraction

According to the Alberta state government, 10% of the bitumen in the Alberta oil fields can be recovered: 200 billion barrels, 32 x109 m3 10% of the world’s supplies. The extraction of oil sands is the largest energy project in the world. Canada has the third largest oil reserves on the planet, guaranteeing its energy security, and giving it an export which boosts its economy. Calgary, the largest city in Alberta, ranked as the 6th richest in the world in 2016 according to GDP per capita (PPP-adjusted).

Local Conservative politicians celebrate it; Fort McMurray – the town at the centre of the industry – has been renamed by locals Fort McMoney. Over the next 25 years, oil sands will add more C$3 trillion to Canada’s economy over the next 25 years, especially as each site only depletes by 4% a year, compared to 20-40% depletion with conventional oil, making them an attractive and lucrative asset.

the location of oil sands in Alberta – the majority of deposits are accessed by in-situ facilities, with the heaviest and oldest open-cast mining and tailing ponds nucleated around Fort McMurray

How bad are oil sands for the climate?

One of the touchiest issues in the debate over oil sands is how dirty they are in comparison to conventional crude oil. Do oil sands produce more GHG emissions over their lifetime compared to conventional petroleum, and by how much? It all depends on who you ask: the government of Alberta commissioned a study undertaken by a Californian-based engineering company and found that oil sands only released 12% more emissions than conventional oil; a 2011 study commissioned by the EU and undertaken by a Stanford University academic placed in at 22%. A US study placed it at 17%. The chief economist for the International Energy Agency sees the bickering as pointless: in 23 hours China will produce more GHG emissions than all the increased emissions for oil sands over the next 25 years put together, according to his analysis.

What is surprising, nonetheless, is that of the two processes used to extract the bitumen, open-cast mining – responsible for the black “moonscape” [Klein], by some reports destined to be the size of England – is the least carbon-intensive. In-situ extraction, which involves pumping high pressure steam into wells to liquefy the bitumen so that it flows up a neighbouring well (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage), produces more emissions because to extract it, companies must first burn natural gas to heat to water to steam. In-situ mining has 1/7th the footprint of mining, which justifies it to many.

One independent scientific study published in academia questions the assumptions of carbon impact, however, based on principles of carbon sequestration. It’s due to the ecology of the region: the overburden (the material above the bitumen deposits) is made up of clays and muskeg, a wet taiga soil underlying the boreal forest.  The study authors calculate that 29.500 ha of muskeg will be destroyed in oil sand extraction, releasing 11.4–47.3 x106 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere as the muskeg is churned and the organic material decomposes (see Thawing Permafrost), even if companies claim that it is replaced latterly.

Moreover, deforestation is the preliminary step in clearing the ground; the scientists place the loss of carbon sequestered per year at 5734 – 7241 tonnes. Even though the government stipulates that all disrupted land is reclaimed and afforested as boreal forest at the end of operations, it does not require the restitution of the carbon or the recovery of peatland bogs. For all the “greenwashing claims” made by mining companies about restoring the ecological balance, reclaimed land will become a net carbon source despite claims about boreal forest restoration. Peatland habitats will decline by 65%, impacting its ecosystem hugely.


Water and tailing ponds

Extracting bitumen requires water, and huge quantities of it. 625 million m3 is diverted annually. The bitumen molecules, being hydrophobic, attach themselves to air bubbles over water, which float above the sand and other sediment, before being frothed to with lighter hydrocarbons to finally extract the bitumen. Greenwashing companies claim that in-situ extraction recycles 90% of its water, but the fact that this water has to be pure, means that it is taken from groundwater aquifers, depleting them and risking contamination with the steam.

Moreover, open-cast mining produces vast tailing ponds, which now cover 77 km2, one lake visible from space, contained by the second-largest dam in human history. Residual bitumen chokes birds’ feathers; those that escape go on to pollute what remains of the boreal ecosystem with the toxic mix of salts, acids, benzene, hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (see Particulate matter) found in the tailing ponds, which also concentrate poisonous heavy metals from vanadium to arsenic, lead to selenium.

the sheen of bitumen residue on tailing ponds; the scale of the industry

Toxins in the ecosystem

The Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), funded by stakeholders in the mines, unsurprisingly found no significant change in aquatic life in its study downstream compared to upstream. However, an independent academic study found that PAH concentrations were 10-50 times higher across the whole oil sands area compared to background readings, although this was due to PAHs evaporating and then precipitating as snowfall rather than groundwater leaching, partially accounting for the claims of the RAMP study. The concentrations of PAHs are toxic to fish embryos, with snowmelt coinciding with spawning. Fathead minnow and white sucker juveniles show reduced growth, and higher mortality and tumour rates. Undoubtedly, the aquatic impact is undoubtedly greater than what can be surveyed, especially due to the impact of bioaccumulation higher up the food chain.

As deforestation of the boreal removes their habitat, woodland caribou are pushed towards extinction by some estimates; the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation Caribou population has seen a 74% decline in their herd size, and Athabasca herds have declined by 71%. Moreover, toxins and chemicals from the tailing ponds accumulate in the liver and tissues of the caribou. One study by researchers at Winnipeg University, found arsenic and mercury levels in moose, duck and muskrat to be of threat to children, and selenium to be a threat to both children and adults. The study noted that this has pushed First Nation communities towards shop-processed food rather than relying on their traditional practices, and that fish are no longer eaten at the government’s warning from the Athabasca River.


The link to cancer?

Lastly, the presence of toxins in the ecosystem and waterways, such as PAHs, has been linked to elevated cancer rates in First Nation communities. However, it is a hugely controversial piece to the increasingly legal jigsaw puzzle over oil sands. In 2006, the local doctor of Fort Chipewyan (the village closest to the heart of the Alberta oil sands development) noticed that rates of a rare bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) were much higher than should be expected in its sub-1000 population. However, the doctor had mis-diagnosed 4 out of the 6 cases, prompting oil sands stakeholders to label the doctor’s practices unsubstantiated.

In 2014, an Alberta state-sponsored study found 51 cancers in the village, rather than 39 cancers expected, across the 1995-2006 period was not cause for concern. They found bile and cervical cancers more prevalent at a statistically significant level, but attributed it to factors other than the environment; for example, children should be disproportionately affected by chemicals in water, but child cancer rates were insignificant.

Dissatisfied, and concerned by their health, two First Nation groups commissioned their own report and found that 23 out of 94 participants had cancer, an elevated level, as well as an onslaught of other illnesses affecting their neurological, respiratory, circulatory and gastrointestinal systems. Yet the health of First Nation communities is neglected and circumvented by Alberta-sponsored studies – to avoid the health of 1000 residents preventing the trillion dollar investment in the region.


Government greenwashing

At the heart of the debate is the issue that plagues all environmental activism fighting against petroleum super-corporations: money will not bow to the environment, even if it means engineering studies in the name of science which support their claims. Justin Trudeau, a keen spokesman for a greener planet, in January 2017 said “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy.” Yet he has made a decision: a decision to accelerate production and to degrade the environment and its indigenous populations, both of wildlife and First Nation communities. Whether at a climatic scale or at a drainage basin scale, oil sands are unquestionably bad, whatever greenwashing oil sand companies try to hide behind.



This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein, pg. 139, Penguin
















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