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Canada pays for U.S. oil thirst

alexd

Administrator
Staff member
Canada pays for U.S. oil thirst

Huge mines linked to environmental damage

By Doug Struck
The Washington Post

Updated: 5:33 a.m. ET May 31, 2006

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta - Huge mines here turning tarry sand into cash for Canada and oil for the United States are taking an unexpectedly high environmental toll, sucking water from rivers and natural gas from wells and producing large amounts of gases linked to global warming.

The digging -- into an area the size of Maryland and Virginia combined -- has proliferated at gold-rush speed, spurred by high oil prices, new technology and an unquenched U.S. thirst for the fuel. The expansion has presented ecological problems that experts thought they would have decades to resolve.

"The river used to be blue. Now it's brown. Nobody can fish or drink from it. The air is bad. This has all happened so fast," said Elsie Fabian, 63, an elder in a native Indian community along the Athabasca River, a wide, meandering waterway once plied by fur traders. "It's terrible. We're surrounded by the mines."

From her home on the bluff of the river, she can see billowing steam rising from a vast strip mine 10 miles away. There, almost 200 feet below what was once a forest, giant machines cleave the earth into a cratered moonscape. Immense shovels plunge into the ground, wresting out massive chunks. Trucks the size of houses prowl the pit. They deliver the black soil to clanking conveyers and vats that steam the tar from the sand.

The miners have created a marvel of human industry that takes a spongy muck once considered worthless and converts it into oil for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. But the price of that alchemy is high: Each barrel of oil requires two to five barrels of water, carves up four tons of earth, uses enough natural gas to heat a home for one to five days, and adds to the greenhouse gases slowly cooking the planet, according to the industry's own calculations.

"The environmental cost has been great," said Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort MacKay First Nations Council, which includes Cree and Dene Indians, 35 miles north of Fort McMurray. He grew up on land that is now a clawed-out mine pit. But he has led his people into the mines by creating native-owned companies providing catering, truck driving, surveying and other services. "There is no other economic option," he said. "Hunting, trapping, fishing is gone."

Operators of the mines, which have helped make Canada the largest supplier of oil to the United States, believe they can find technological solutions to the environmental problems.

"There is a whole lot of work being done," Charles Ruigrok, chief executive of Syncrude, one of the largest companies, said at his corporate headquarters in downtown Fort McMurray. "I do believe technology will fix it."

Call for moratorium
The oil companies point to steady reductions in the amount of water and natural gas used to produce each barrel of oil, for example. But those efficiency gains have been wiped out by the rise in the number of barrels produced. Increasingly, environmental organizations are calling for a moratorium on the growth of the mines.

"We shouldn't be issuing new permits. We are foreclosing our future," said Dan Woynillowicz, who headed an extensive study for the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based nonprofit that conducts research on environmental issues. "In the 1990s, we acknowledged environmental challenges would occur. But we are 17 years ahead of schedule."

When the oil sands became recognized as economically viable in 2003, Canada suddenly emerged as holder of the world's second-largest oil reserves, behind Saudi Arabia. By 2015, according to industry forecasts, the oil sands will account for at least one-fourth of North America's oil production.

The United States already is counting on Canada to help wean it from oil from the Middle East. Other countries are eyeing the wealth; China has invested in two mining companies and a pipeline to move oil from Alberta to shipping ports on the Pacific.

As technology and ever-bigger machines reduced the cost of extracting oil from the sands, private companies rushed in, investing nearly $100 billion in mines and sprawling processing plants. They were expected to produce 1 million barrels a day by 2020. That goal was passed in 2004, and the companies are racing to double the output soon and triple it by 2015.

They dig out shallower seams and inject steam underground to liquefy and pump out the deeper sands. Heating the water and processing the crude bitumen -- a heavy, viscous oil -- produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is linked to global warming. The oil sands mines have become the largest contributor to Canada's increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Pembina's research.

"If you grow production of the oil sands, you are going to grow greenhouse emissions," Ruigrok said.

The oil companies are mulling ways to capture and bury carbon dioxide. Environmentalists want the companies to offset their greenhouse emissions by paying for conservation or alternative energy programs; Shell Canada has agreed to fund such programs to compensate for part of its carbon emissions. But oil company executives say that if their production is curbed, the world will buy the oil from worse polluters.

"If we chose not to develop the resource, there would still be oil produced elsewhere in the world," Gordon Lambert, a senior vice president of Suncor Energy, said in an interview from Calgary.

Critics also question the wisdom of using natural gas to heat and upgrade the oil sands. "We are taking a cleaner energy source and turning it into something that produces a lot of emissions when you produce it and when you burn it," said Dale Marshall, a climate change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation in Ottawa.

Those processes are "putting unacceptable pressure on the environment," said Julia Langer, director of the global threats program of World Wildlife Fund-Canada in Toronto.

They point to threats to the Athabasca River, which flows like an azure ribbon from the Columbia Icefield in the Rocky Mountains. It tumbles through cool evergreen forests, wends through Alberta and finally joins the Peace River near Saskatchewan to form a teeming delta that is a major North American intersection for migrating birds.

Rare cancers
Mining operations have been permitted to take twice the amount of water from the river than is used annually by Calgary, a city of 1 million people, according to Pembina. The group's report predicts that the oil sands mines will increase withdrawals by 50 percent in the next six years.

Native communities on the river say that further reductions in the low winter flows will make the river unhealthy and that the northern pike, walleye and burbot may not survive. And they believe the waters have been contaminated by someone. Native residents of Fort Chipewyan, a village of 1,200 on the shores of Lake Athabasca, have experienced abnormally high rates of rare cancers. Federal and provincial medical investigators are trying to determine the cause.

Industry officials say they do not pollute the river, and instead reuse the water they take as often as 17 times. The leftover emerges as a black, foul liquid collected in tailing ponds. The ponds have grown; one dam is among the largest in the world. The mining companies must fire off propane cannons to scare away migrating birds from the toxic waters.

Industry officials say they are confident they will find a way to cap the ponds and solve the other problems. "I don't think there is a silver bullet that is the single answer," said Greg Stringham, vice president of the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "But there are five or six technologies that are promising."

The mines are being carved out of Canada's vast Boreal forest, a continental swath of timber and wetlands that ecologists say helps reduce global warming.

From her 25-foot-high perch in the driver's cabin of a Caterpillar 797, the world's largest truck, Michelle Noer acknowledges that the landscape of Syncrude's Aurora pit mine "looks pretty rough right now.

"If we just dug it up, I probably wouldn't be able to do it," said Noer, 37, who came from lush wine country in British Columbia for the work and high pay. "But we do reclaim it. And we do need the oil."

One of the early Syncrude mining sites to be reclaimed now boasts 40-foot jack pine and spruce trees and sings with the call of songbirds that flit over hiking trails. "Beware of the Wildlife," a sign warns.

"It doesn't look bad. But it certainly isn't Boreal forest," said Pembina's Woynillowicz. "We have to wait and see if this ecosystem they have put back actually is going to be sustainable."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
 
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AdRiaN

TRIBE Member
Boss Hog said:
we don't need alternative fuels, we have Alberta!
Where does the article say that alternative fuels are not being pursued in Canada?

Developing fossil fuel resources and developing alternative energy sources are not mutually exclusive.
 

Boss Hog

TRIBE Member
AdRiaN said:
Where does the article say that alternative fuels are not being pursued in Canada?

Developing fossil fuel resources and developing alternative energy sources are not mutually exclusive.

I was kidding around, not making an academic argument. Humour outside of bad puns, see. ;)

It was more a reference to debates from the past.
 

Ditto Much

TRIBE Member
Would it be better if it was to feed Europe, China or India oil?

Yes we ship oil to the USA. Its in fact more economical and environmentally sound for Canada to ship oil to the USA then any other country on earth due to geography. In fact every barrel of oil we send to the USA saves a barrel from having to be shipped 5 times further.

Additionally as long as the oil comes from our country we can set standards and limits on how it is done. Mexico and Venezuela along with Nigeria, Iran and Saudi Arabia simply don't put anywhere near the environmental restrictions we set forth. Thus a barrel of oil in Alberta produces half the pollution that a barely in Iran produces.

So from a global perspective it makes more sense and is more environmentally friendly to ship oil to the USA from Canada then just about anywhere else.
 

Dialog

TRIBE Member
Subsonic Chronic said:
It should be pointed out here that the C-Train in Calgary is run entirely off wind-generated power.
When I worked at ENMAX 99-00 it was kind of explained to me that at the time the whole 'Greenmax' program to purchase power from the Pincher Creek wind site was a bit of a shellgame, in that the money subsidized the development of the wind farm, but many times customers paying for green power weren't actually getting juice from a turbine. I dunno, maybe/hopefully things have changed since then...?
 
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Subsonic Chronic

TRIBE Member
Dialog said:
When I worked at ENMAX 99-00 it was kind of explained to me that at the time the whole 'Greenmax' program to purchase power from the Pincher Creek wind site was a bit of a shellgame, in that the money subsidized the development of the wind farm, but many times customers paying for green power weren't actually getting juice from a turbine. I dunno, maybe/hopefully things have changed since then...?
It would be the same now.

All energy, whether it comes from coal, nuclear, wind power or other sources all goes into the same grid, so there's no way to send one type of energy to a person's home and another type to their neighbour. Supporting "green" power initiatives is essentially what you described, where people pay a bit of a premium and this goes to subsidize green power projects.
 

Onthereals

TRIBE Member
chooch said:
moved to politics forum in ....3....2....
uhh it was posted by Alexd, and why does anything involving something serious automatically mean its only fit for the politics forum?

This is why Canada cannot go through with the Kyoto accord because of these tar sands projects. And unfortunately, unless the whole entire country gets worked up about it, (which it will not be encouraged to, so people wont) there is almost nothing that can be done about it because alot of the companies in there are internationals. So we are getting raped, theres little to no discussion about it except for the economic impact, and eventually a nation that could have been self sustaining has become barren due to a wealthy few who will make trillions off of this. Meanwhile, natives get further raped, and even more desperate as their land becomes useless.

No one learns anything, and down the road, the environmental situation becomes more dire and the stakes are raised even higher.
 

Sleepy Giant

TRIBE Member
Onthereals said:
This is why Canada cannot go through with the Kyoto accord because of these tar sands projects. And unfortunately, unless the whole entire country gets worked up about it,
The only thing I get worked up about is how much money I pay for gas each month. Why the hell can't the automakers build a truck that gets decent fuel mileage. By decent I mean 25 mpg.
 

Boss Hog

TRIBE Member
Sleepy Giant said:
The only thing I get worked up about is how much money I pay for gas each month. Why the hell can't the automakers build a truck that gets decent fuel mileage. By decent I mean 25 mpg.
The good news is that new SUV's are safer.
 
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chooch

TRIBE Member
Onthereals said:
uhh it was posted by Alexd, and why does anything involving something serious automatically mean its only fit for the politics forum?

i knew who posted that ... *giggles*
 

Boo

TRIBE Member
what is going on here? are actually blaming AMERICA for CANADA's decision to tear up the earth?

lol

because of their demand - we have no choice! is it America's fault we are clear cutting our trees? cause they want to buy our wood? They should stop buying Canadian trees, cause we can't just, I don't know, stop cutting them down - stupid americans.

Hey guess what Canada's economy is dependent on the USA like no other economy in the world is dependent on another country. They buy 90% of our exports. Ya the US should just stop buying Canadian stuff - we could get by fine with 10% of our goods going to other countries.

Furthermore, the Candian economy and in turn the Canadian dollar is now viewed as a Petrocurrency / economy - ie it strengthens with the rise in oil prices. We are considered in the same categories of other OPEC countries as our economy and success is being more and more tied to our oil production.

In the last 5-10 years almost all the growth in any industry in Canada has been the result of Natural resource or 'old' economies. Things like the oil sector, the mining sector, the lumber industry, construction, gas etc.

Almost all other industries - banking, finance, hi-tech, reasearch and others you would consider most important in the knowledge economy have actually showed declines.

This means basically Canada is totally dependent on its natural resources, and it is the backbone of the Canadian economy.

Oh, and America's thirst has nothing really to do with th current oil shortage, as that has increased only to a small degree, its the MASSIVE demand from China and India's economy that is driving the demand. But that doesn't make as good a headline.

PS. The price of oil is denominated in US currency and is therefore heavily dependent on the value of the American dollar. The resulting strength of the Canadian dollar to the US - means that our oil/gas costs have increased, but not in line with the actual increase in oil prices. The cheaper US dollars have sheilded some of the impact.

The US hasn't been sheilded in the same way, so while prices have doubled for US consumers, they have only reisen to something like 30% in Canada. You wouldn't know it from how much we bitch about the prices though.
 
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