Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development in Alberta

The following is a guest post by Simon Dyer, of Canada's Pembina Institute. The Pembina Institute believes that while oil sands extraction has many issues, it can be done in an environmentally sustainable way. In the end, they advocate a moratorium on new project approvals until 2011, new regional environmental groups and some additional environmental controls, as described in their publication Taking the Wheel. Increased CO2 emissions might be handled through purchase of carbon emissions credits and through improvements in production efficiency. While the oil sands aren't great, with some adjustments, they may still be an acceptable solution. The comments to this post are helpful in understanding the complex situation. Don't miss them!

By Simon Dyer, Oil Sands Program Director,
The Pembina Institute

The oil sands are an issue of global importance. As conventional sources of crude oil are depleted, unconventional sources of oil, such as the bitumen found in oil sands, play a larger role in offsetting declining conventional production. The Canadian oil sands are the second largest proven oil reserve after Saudi Arabia.1

Most of the Canadian oil sands are located in Alberta, with 175 billion barrels of recoverable bitumen underlying approximately 140,800 square kilometres of the province,2 an area that is roughly the size of the state of Florida. This unconventional oil is currently extracted using surface mining or in situ (in place) drilling methods, depending on the depth of the deposit. Mining is used for the bitumen that is closer to the surface (less than 75 metres), and drilling for in situ extraction is used when the bitumen is more than 75 metres deep.3 Each extraction method presents its own challenges.

As the rate and scale of oil sands development increases, concerns about the associated environmental impacts have grown. The Pembina Institute has been reporting on these concerns and providing factual information on the environmental impacts since the release of its Oil Sands Fever report in 2005.

To fully understand the costs and benefits of the oil sands requires more than an appreciation of the size of the resource and the financial rewards of exploiting it. An understanding of the environmental effects and the context of a growing global imperative to reduce our global carbon footprint is essential. The Pembina Institute’s work is designed to help policy makers and others guide energy development with eyes wide open and with a clear idea of the challenges that need to be overcome to achieve responsible development of the Alberta oil sands.

About 99% of the mineable oil sands area has been leased. Source: Alberta Energy (Click for more detailed view).

The oil sands underlie 140,800 square kilometres, or 21% of the province of Alberta. Updated figures from the Alberta government’s Department of Energy show that the mining portion of this land base will be approximately 4,750 square kilometres, and that 99% of the mineable area has already been leased.4

About 4,750 square kilometres of land has been leased to oil sands mining operations, such as Suncor (right side of photo) and Syncrude (top left of photo). Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

In situ development could occur in an area approximately 30 times greater than the mining area. This type of development creates significant linear disturbance to the boreal forest. These linear disturbances, from seismic and core hole exploration, production well pads, roads and pipelines, can negatively impact species of wildlife that avoid linear features, such as the endangered woodland caribou.5

Mining extraction currently accounts for 60%6 of the 1.4 million barrels of bitumen produced each day.7 In situ development represents the most significant growth potential for the oil sands industry and will contribute a growing proportion of future oil sands production. For more information about in situ development see Pembina’s report Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Impacts of In Situ Oil Sands Development on Alberta’s Boreal Forest.

In situ oil sands development imposes a unique set of impacts on the boreal forest, such as this 3D seismic work to map the oil sands resource south of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute.

Since development began around 40 years ago, 84,000 square kilometres of land underlain with oil sands deposits has been leased in Alberta, accounting for about 60% of the total resource area.8 Lands are leased to companies with no environmental impact assessments or consultation with stakeholders (including Aboriginal groups). This part of the process does not take place until the project application phase of development. To learn more about how the Alberta Government grants oil sands rights to companies see Haste Makes Waste: The Need for a New Oil Sands Tenure Regime.

Reclamation of boreal forest lands after development is quite a challenge for the industry, and the boreal ecosystem will never be fully restored. While wetlands occupy about 40-50% of the landscape before development, reclamation projects are returning the landscape to a predominantly upland, forested ecosystem. Reclamation of peatland (a type of wetland) ecosystems is still undemonstrated.

Companies are required by the Alberta government to post a security deposit as insurance in the event of unforeseen events or in the case of bankruptcy.9 This reclamation security is likely inadequate to protect Canadians from long-term environmental liabilities. Recommendations by the Auditor General of Alberta to review the reclamations security program have not been heeded by government. More information can be found in the report Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation.

Carbon Intensity

Greenhouse gas emissions are higher for oil sands production than for conventional oil production. Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

Oil sands development is carbon-intensive. The production and upgrading required to produce synthetic crude oil from oil sands mining results in greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 62 to 164 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per barrel. In situ development, which is generally more carbon-intensive than mining, results in emission rates between 99 and 176 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per barrel.10 Although there is a high degree of variation, industry average emissions for oil sands production and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as conventional crude produced in North America.11 Canadian government reports similarly suggest that “GHG emissions from oil sands mining and upgrading are about five times greater than those from conventional light/medium crude oil production.”12 Even if you look at it from a full life-cycle “well-to-wheels” basis, oil sands are overall still one of the most greenhouse gas intensive fuel sources.13

While Canada was one of the 39 industrialized countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 to reduce its national greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels,14 it has since backed down from these obligations. Canada has earned the reputation of being obstructionist to international climate change negotiations as we approach the Copenhagen summit.15 More on this topic can be found in the report: The Climate Implications of Canada’s Oil Sands Development and Carbon Capture and Storage in Canada.

Water Use

Producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands by mining requires two to four barrels of fresh water after taking into account water recycling.16 Companies are currently licensed to withdraw over 590,000,000 cubic metres of water per year, which is roughly equivalent to what a city of 3 million people would require.17 Water for oil sands mining is pumped from the Athabasca River, a river that fluctuates seasonally as well as year to year, and withdrawing water during natural low flow periods (which occur primarily in the winter) has the potential to harm aquatic life in the river.18 This water cannot be returned to the river system because it becomes toxic in the extraction process and must be retained in tailings ponds.

In situ development is less water intensive at approximately 0.9 barrels of water per barrel of oil, yet this is still higher than water use for conventional oil production, which averages 0.1-0.3 barrels of water per barrel of oil.19 In situ operations produce steam from fresh and saline water sources that is then injected to “help reduce the viscosity" (melt) the bitumen in the reservoir so it can be pumped out. Wastewater produced by in situ development is not contained in tailings ponds, but rather injected into deep aquifers on site.20 See Down to the Last Drop: The Athabasca River and Oil Sands and Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends for more information on water in the oil sands.


This tailings pond is about five kilometers long and is located to the north of the Syncrude oil sands operation. Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

The liquid tailings, a by product of the oil sands mining process, contain naphthenic acids, unrecovered hydrocarbons and trace metals, making it toxic to aquatic organisms21 and mammals22.

Operators are required to store tailings waste on site in large containment dykes because the water is too toxic to be returned to the Athabasca River under water quality guidelines.

There are currently over 720 billion litres of toxic tailings on the landscape in the Athabasca oil sands area.23 These ponds cover an area of more than 130 square kilometres. By 2040 these tailings are expected to occupy 310 square kilometres, an area nearly the size of Vancouver.24 No tailings ponds have been reclaimed to date. More information on tailings and reclamation can be found in Pembina’s report Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation.

One of the major concerns associated with tailings ponds is the migration of pollutants through the groundwater system, which can in turn leak into surrounding soil and surface water.25 There is currently a lack of publicly available information on the rate and volume of seepage from oil sands tailings ponds, despite known incidents involving tailings seepage.26

A dominant plan for reclaiming liquid tailings at mine closure is to deposit them in end pit lakes. Tailings would be dumped into old mine pits and capped with water from the Athabasca River.27 This method is unproven. The concern is that the water and tailings layers will mix and there is also some fear that the end pit lakes will be unable to sustain aquatic life. However, many mining projects to date have been approved based on dealing with tailings in this manner. A fully realized end pit lake has not yet been constructed.28

Cumulative impacts

Since 2000, environmental and cumulative effects management in the oil sands has relied heavily on multi-stakeholder groups such as the Cumulative Effects Management Association (CEMA). CEMA has had troubles meeting goals within its own work plan, which has been largely attributed to a lack of resources and a lack of regulatory backstops from the Government of Alberta.29

The Pembina Institute recently released a report on how mining companies scored relative to one another in various categories. The report Under-Mining the Environment: The Oil Sands Report Card ultimately showed the improvements that could be made if each company performed at the level of the current highest achiever in that specific category. While many improvements could be made, having regulatory backstops at the level of current best practices would be a means to reduce cumulative impacts in the oil sands area.

Oil sands projects continue to get approved and begin construction in northeastern Alberta, in spite of there being very few limits set for water, air, land or toxins. This situation, combined with the lack of a land use plan, creates uncertainty about what the final landscape in the oil sands area will look like once development in the area is operating fully. It also calls into question what the development area will look like once development is finished. The Pembina Institute gives its recommendations for environmental management in Taking the Wheel: Correcting the Course of Cumulative Environmental Management in the Athabasca Oil Sands.


1. Government of Alberta, “Talk about oil sands,” http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/OilSands/pdfs/FS_OilSands.pdf (accessed May 5, 2009).

2. The Energy Resources Conservation Board, http://www.ercb.ca/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=249&PageID=0&cached=t... (accessed March 30, 2009).

3. Alberta Energy, “What is Oil Sands,” http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/OilSands/pdfs/FactSheet_OilSands.pdf (accessed May 14, 2009).

4. Alberta Energy, Alberta’s Leased Oil Sands Area (June 24, 2009), http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/pdfs/OSAagreesStats_June2009vkb.pdf.

5. Simon J. Dyer, Jack P. O’Neill, Shawn M. Wasel and Stan Boutin, “Quantifying barrier effects of roads and seismic lines on movements of female woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta,” Can. J. Zool. 80 (2002): 839–45.

6. Energy Resources Conservation Board, ST98-2008: Alberta’s Energy Reserves 2007 and Supply/Demand Outlook 2008-2017 (June 2008), 2-20, http://www.ercb.ca/docs/products/sts/st98-2008.pdf.

7. Energy Resources Conservation Board, Supply and Disposition of Crude Oil Equivalent (January and February 2009), http://www.ercb.ca/docs/products/sts/st3/Oil_current.xls (updated March 2009).

8. Alberta Energy, Alberta’s Leased Oil Sands Area (June 24, 2009), http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/pdfs/OSAagreesStats_June2009vkb.pdf.

9. Security deposits are only required for oil sands mining operations and not in situ operations. The EUB Licensee Liability Rating and Orphan Fund governs in situ operations’ securities.

10. Alex Charpentier et al., “Understanding the Canadian oil sands industry’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Environmental Research Letters 4 (2009) 014005, http://stacks.iop.org/ERL/4/014005.

11. Timothy J. Skone and Kristin Gerdes, Development of Baseline Data and Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Petroleum-Based Fuels (U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2008), tables 2-4 and 2-5, http://www.netl.doe.gov/energy-analyses/refshelf/detail.asp?pubID=204.

12. Environment Canada, National Inventory Report: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, 1990–2006, 11, http://www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/ghg/inventory_report/2006_report/som-sum_eng.cfm.

13. Kristin J. Gerdes and Timothy J. Skone, An Evaluation of the Extraction, Transport and Refining of Imported Crude Oils and the Impact on Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions (U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2009), 16, figure 3-3, http://www.netl.doe.gov/energy-analyses/refshelf/detail.asp?pubID=227.

14. Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol on December 17, 2002. See http://maindb.unfccc.int/public/country.pl?country=CA.

15. Hannah Devlin, “Canada and Japan blocking climate-change deal, Sir David King warns,” Times Online, July 2, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6620438.ece (accessed July 8, 2009).

16. R. J. Mikula ,V. A. Munoz and O. Omotoso, “Water Use in Bitumen Production: Tailings Management in Surface Mined Oil Sands” presented at the World Heavy Oil Congress, Edmonton, 2008, 1, http://canmetenergycanmetenergie.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca/fichier.php/codectec/.... Suncor reports 2.29 cubic metres of water per cubic metre of synthetic crude oil (Suncor Energy Ltd., A Closer Look: An Update on Our Progress [2008], 4, www.suncor.com/doc.aspx?id=178.) Note that Suncor’s operations include in situ projects, which use less water per unit of bitumen produced than do mining operations, so Suncor’s average water use for mining operations may exceed 2.29 cubic metres of water per cubic metre of synthetic crude oil. Syncrude reports 2.26 cubic metres of water per cubic metre of synthetic crude oil (Syncrude Canada Ltd, 2007 Sustainability Report (2008)), http://sustainability.syncrude.ca/sustainability2007/enviro/water/). See also Jeremy Moorhouse et al., Under-Mining the Environment: The Oil Sands Report Card (Drayton Valley, AB: The Pembina Institute and Toronto, ON: World Wildlife Fund Canada, 2008), Appendix 4 – Water, 32, http://www.oilsandswatch.org/pub/1571. The information in the application was confirmed by Shell, based on water use of 28.3 million cubic metres per year and daily bitumen production of 120,000 billion barrels per day. Where necessary, values have been converted. There are approximately 6.292 barrels in a cubic metre.

17. Alberta Environment, Water Diversions by oilsands mining projects (2007).

18. IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Growth in the Canadian Oil Sands: Finding the New Balance (2009), p III-9

19. IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Growth in the Canadian Oil Sands: Finding the New Balance (2009), p. III-7.

20. IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Growth in the Canadian Oil Sands: Finding the New Balance (2009), p. III-10.

21. M. MacKinnon and H. Boerger, “Description of Two Treatment Methods for Detoxifying Oil Sands Tailings Pond Water,” Water Pollution Research Journal of Canada 21 (1986).

22. United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Toxic Substances, “Fate and Effects of Sediment-Bound Chemicals in Aquatic Systems,” Proceedings of the Sixth Pellston Workshop, Florissant, CO, August 12-17, 1984.

23. Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, “ERCB releases draft directive on oil sands tailings management and enforcement criteria,” news release, June 26, 2008, www.ercb.ca/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_303_263_0_43/http%3B/erc....

24. Energy Resources Conservation Board, Data for Mineable Oil Sands Current and Projected Tailings and Footprint Area, email received October 2008.

25. National Energy Board, Canada’s Oil Sands: Opportunities and Challenges to 2015, an Energy Market Assessment, 68, http://www.neb.gc.ca/energy/EnergyReports/EMAOilSandsOpportunitiesChalle....

26. Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, Application by Suncor Inc. Oil Sands Group for Amendment of Approval No.7632 for Proposed Steepbank Mine Development, Decision No. 97-1, Application No. 960439, Calgary, 1997.

27. Synenco Energy Inc., Application for approval of the Northern Lights Mining and Extraction Project, Volume 3: Management Plans, 2006, 6–28.

28. Fay Westcott and Lindsay Watson, End Pit Lakes Technical Guidance Document, prepared for The Cumulative Environmental Management Association End Pit Lakes Subgroup Project 2005-61, 2007, 4.

29. Steven A. Kennett, “Closing the Performance Gap: The Challenge for Cumulative Effects Management in Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Region,” in CIRL Occasional Paper #18 (Calgary: Canadian Institute of Resources Law, 2007).

The Petroleum Economist (free 48 hour subscription available) has this to say about the Pembina Institute:

Pembina Institute: putting Albertans first

Between environmental abuse and shutting down Alberta's oil sands lies a reasonable path to sustainable energy production, says the Pembina Institute. . .

That's where Pembina started: a group of concerned local citizens who saw the fallout from the fatal Lodgepole sour gas blowout of 1982 and demanded action to prevent similar accidents. Now Pembina has around 60 employees in offices throughout the country and a C$4m-plus budget (mostly raised through grants, donations, and fees-for-service). And it has influence, particularly in the oil sands.

It also has opponents – on both sides of the debate. Some industry figures say Pembina is becoming too radical. And some environmentalists say its profitable consultancy side puts it too close to the energy industry. Supporters say its budget allows Pembina to develop the kind of expertise to which industry listens.

So it is a think tank, that gets its money from charitable donations and from fee-for-service, that writes reports for both environmental and more business oriented groups. It doesn't seem to think there is a need to cut back from where we are with respect to oil sands development. Instead, it seems to think that oil sands development can be done in an environmentally friendly manner.

Readers will want to look at the reference at the end Taking the Wheel: Correcting the Course of Cumulative Environmental Management in the Athabasca Oil Sands, in which it describes how it would fix the oil sands environmental problems. It talks about instituting a moratorium on new projects until 2011, and creating a new form of regional environmental groups. The whole system doesn't sound terribly different from today--the changes (from reading the report) sound fairly reasonable. There would be a plan for habitat protection which would set aside areas, and a scientific body making recommendations.

Another interesting document is on how the Pembina Institute would deal with global warming gasses. It is a 2005 document, so may be superseded by the Taking the Wheel report. It says

But there are two potential ways in which the oil sands industry could take responsibility for its GHG emissions without stopping development. The first is for the industry to seek technology breakthroughs that significantly cut the GHG intensity of oil sands production. The second is for the industry to offset emissions by purchasing credits that represent genuine GHG emission reductions achieved elsewhere. Shell Canada has demonstrated how this could be feasible by committing to reduce or offset 50% of the emissions from its Muskeg River project.

To ensure that oil sands development does not prevent Canada achieving deep emission reductions, the Pembina Institute recommends that the governments of Canada and Alberta require all existing and new oil sands operations to be “carbon neutral” (net zero GHG emissions) by 2020 through a combination of actual reductions and genuine emission offsets.

To me the environmental, energy, economic trifecta is an extremely tangled web. The tar sands issue, from a wide boundary perspective isn't really about whether we can affordably (in energy or environmental terms) get 3-5 million barrels per day of oil, but that we have used up the lions share of the easily available liquid hydrocarbons, and the juice that grew global economy to this scale and scope is petering out. Environmentalists (on average) don't seem to understand the energy and systems problems with moving to renewables, energy folks don't seem to see externalities or social limits and economists dont see the biophysical aspects of resources need to extract resources. Overlayed on all of this is a financial marker system run amok.

We probably are going to need every drop of oil we can get, but just to offset a steep decline rate, not to continue business as usual. To consider our environment is to think about our future which beyond the next few years is hard for folks to do. After reading Gails tar sands post and this one, I suspect the truth of environmental damage of tar sands lies somewhere between 'some' and 'extreme', but the bigger issue is that neither tar sands, nor shale oil, nor Bakken nor deepwater are going to magically replace the near 10% decline rate of post peak fields.

Defense, not offense, is the order of the day, IMO.

We probably are going to need every drop of oil we can get, but just to offset a steep decline rate, not to continue business as usual.

I think that is the issue. We have used up most of the world's conventional oil, and the Alberta oil sands hold an amount of non-conventional oil approximately equal to the the world's conventional oil supply.

Unfortunately, even under optimum conditions, increasing production from the oil sands will not offset declining conventional production. The supply situation is not looking good, given the project cutbacks caused by the financial meltdown. You can look forward to oil price peaks larger than even last year's $147/bbl spike.

And, if the U.S. rejects it, Alberta will just sell the oil to the Chinese. The Chinese can pay for it by cashing in their U.S. dollars. And there the U.S. will be, with no oil and no money.


You ought to be the Presidents closest and most trusted advisor.

That will probably never be, given the reality of politics , but maybe a few key golden girl/golden guy aides in various offices are reading the Oil Drum.

One of them might be the holder of a very high office one day and maybe he or she will offer you a job where you can make a real difference.

Just daydreaming of course but stranger things do happen.

Between environmental abuse and shutting down Alberta's oil sands lies a reasonable path to sustainable energy production, says the Pembina Institute. . .

Maybe I'm either overly skeptical or too naive but there is no way I can buy the possibility of sustainable energy production from Alberta's oil sands. Maybe they can bottle the 720 billion litres of toxic tailings and sell them as mineral health spa water for the rich and famous...

One of the references I ran across when doing Part 2 of my Oil Sands series related to a recent patent for extracting rare earth minerals and other minerals from tailings ponds, using centrifuging. I don't know if it will prove to be commercially feasible, but if it is, it could solve two problems at once. According to the article:


A superior and efficient process to concentrate and extract the valuable minerals from the tailings immediately following the hot water bitumen extraction and centrifugal processing steps used for oil recovery.

Patent: Canadian Patent 1,326,571


The oil sands industry in Northern Alberta currently generates more than 11,000 tonnes of tailings slurry per day, 365 days per year, as waste from the process of bitumen extraction. These tailings are deposited in containment ponds to limit residual oil from leaching into water systems. It has been found that the tailings are a unique and rich source of titanium (5-10 % on solids), zirconium (2-5 %) and iron and rare earth minerals (8-12 %). These valuable minerals are at present not being recovered. The global titanium market is significant – approximately $10 billion per year in annual sales. The market is spit as follows: 60% paints and coatings, 20% plastics, 13% pulp and paper and 7% for other uses.

Maybe Dean Kamen could sell them his Slingshot technology and a couple of Segways too?

Ok, I'll tone down the snark long enough to say that I'm sure there are things that could be done with those tailings that are certainly more productive than letting them sit in gigantic ponds where they attract and kill water fowl

The fact remains that I don't think any process that produces this much environmental degradation should be allowed to proceed without very rigorous checks and balances and full environmental costs accounting added to the price tag of any energy that is produced.

Granted that is just MHO.

I cant see those rare earth minerals sitting round for long now China is no longer exporting. They alone could cover the cost of extraction in the near future.

G refers to this centrifuge patent several times on this page, but surely it would only filter out suspended particles (colloids) and have no effect on things in solution, or the dreaded naphthenic acid.

On the other hand, I am about to release my discovery that naphthenide is an even more effective tooth preservative than fluoride.

...the dreaded naphthenic acid.

Naphthenic acid is a complex of carboxylic acids obtained as a by-product of petroleum refining; with a variable composition and ingredients; generally 180 - 350 mole wt. It is used in deicing, dust control, wood preservative and road stabilization. It's industrial applications include the production of metallic naphthenates, synthetic detergents and as a solvents. as a lubricant, Corrosion inhibitor and fuel additive.

Based on that, I would say the easiest way to dispose of napthenic acid is to bottle it and sell it to consumers.

Mixtures of a flammable substance and naphthenic and palmitic acid aluminium salts were discovered during World War II to make napalm.

Or sell it to the military, your choice...

Another interesting fact about the Pembina Institute is that it is named after the Pembina Cardium Oil Field, the biggest conventional oil field in Canada.

They're headquartered in Drayton Valley, the heart of the Pembina field. When Pembina was discovered in 1953, Drayton Valley had 75 inhabitants. By the end of that year, it had 2,000 people and 70 oil companies drilling wells. Today it has about 7,000. It's an old, established boom town, the kind where oil workers sit around, drink caffè lattes, and talk about "environmental sustainability".

They got their start after the notorious Lodgepole well blowout, in which Amoco Petroleum hit a much, much bigger gas discovery than they expected, in temperatures of about 40 below when all the equipment was frozen. For several months, the well blew 100 million cubic feet a day of sour gas (enough to heat a small city). In Drayton Valley, it corroded the paint on people's houses and turned their silverware black - hence the Pembina Institute's interest in environmental issues. Two people were killed, but they worked for a blowout control company that apparently didn't know what they were doing.

To date,the Pembina oil field has produced about 1.5 billion barrels of oil, 20% of the original oil in place. Using CO2 EOR, they could probably recover another 15-20%, which might explain the Pembina Institute's interest in carbon sequestration (known to us old oil guys as CO2 miscible flood).

Thanks for the additional information about Pembina. I don't think I remember ever reading about the Pembina field or the well blow-out.

The great thing about getting older is that you don't have to read about history because you were there when it happened.

I know a great deal about the Lodgepole blowout because my brother was engineer-on-call when it happened. He had videos of the attempt to cap it. It was a classic. The well control experts they hired released the pipe brakes to drop the drill pipe down the well so they could put a cap on the wellhead, and the well blew the pipe string 400 feet into the air.

The entire area happened to be covered knee-deep in condensate (unrefined gasoline) from the well, and when the pipe hit the rig, the spark ignited it and burned down 160 acres of forest. The well burned for about four months (you could see the flame from 100 miles away), until a new bunch of well control experts managed to cap it (they fired the first bunch).

Sounds like quite the blow-out. I'm glad your brother was on-call rather than on site!

All very distressing, but thanks for the clarity of explanation of supporting evidence.

The big two worries for me are the destruction of boreal forest and the impact of tailings, both of which look like they are set to be long term embuggerances. For me, the use of fresh water and CO2 impact are but a small part of a much bigger problem, and ceasing all oil sand work isn't going to change the problem much.

So the question, therefore, is what can be done about this?

Assuming economic gain remains more important than environmental concerns(for companies, for the government, for the populus etc) it is unlikely that oil sands development will stop. What is the chance of developing better solutions to these long term affects?

When I read this report, and I read the recommendations of the Pembina Institute on how to fix things, I almost get the impression that the report written for The OIl Drum and the recommendations (Taking the Wheel) are written for two different audiences.

The Oil Drum report seems to be written to emphasize how distressing all of these issues are. It sounds like what the Pembina Institute might write for some of its environmental clients. When I check some of these items against the footnotes referenced, at least some of them are written in such a way as to make things sound as bad as possible, within the context of the available references. (See some of my other comments for more information on this.)

The report about how to fix things is Taking the Wheel: Correcting the Course of Cumulative Environmental Management in the Athabasca Oil Sands sounds as if it was written for a business/governmental audience. It makes it sound like things can be fixed without a huge amount of effort.

It sounds like what the Pembina Institute might write for some of its environmental clients. When I check some of these items against the footnotes referenced, at least some of them are written in such a way as to make things sound as bad as possible, within the context of the available references.

Yes, that's exactly how they do it. When you read some of these reports, it sounds like the world is coming to an end. When you read the references, you discover that there are already mitigation strategies in the plans, and at the end of it all it's going to look something like Disneyland, but with fewer people.

Or, that's what is in the plans. In reality, it might be a little scruffier around the edges.

However, based on the old reclaimed mines around this yuppie heaven where I live, a few years after the mines are closed I don't think that people will realize they were ever there. Other than the geologists, none of the people around here do.

It is interesting to compare what this report says, and what the references that it links to say. This report says

Canadian government reports similarly suggest that “GHG emissions from oil sands mining and upgrading are about five times greater than those from conventional light/medium crude oil production.”12

But when you go to reference 12, you discover it is really a governmental report, with a footnote reference to this 2006 report by John Nyboer and JianJun Tu. The graph shown in the document relating to the issue of greenhouse gasses is this one:

The graphs shows GHG of relating to "production" four types oil extraction--two conventional (light/medium and heavy) and two types of oil sands (thermal and mining plus upgrading). What the blockquote says is literally true. If you compare the higher of the oil sands numbers to the lower of the conventional numbers, the ratio is something like 4.5, which they round up to 5.0. (I calculate 4.4, which rounds down to 4.)

So what the footnote says is literally true. But one shouldn't jump to the conclusion it compares all oil sands production with all conventional production.

One also shouldn't jump to the conclusion that it compares greenhouse gasses for the whole life cycle of emissions. The graphs when one looks at the whole life cycle don't show a huge amount of difference. I'll show some of those in a different comment.

Yes, they quote numbers for

conventional light/medium crude oil production

but as you can see from the chart, heavy oil is quite different. Most of the world's light and medium oil has already been produced, and most of the new production coming on stream these days is heavy.

GHG emissions from oil sands are not a great deal different from California Kern County heavy oil, for instance. People in California need to come to terms with that fact.

It's always the same story: A beautiful, sparsely populated area, inhabited primarily by Native Americans with no political clout, becomes a sacrifice area to the politically connected fossil fuel exploitation industry. The San Juan Basin gas fields of the Colorado Plateau, Black Mesa on the Navajo Reservation, an area the size of Florida in the boreal forest inhabited by the Cree & Athapaskan speaking peoples... Same ole same ole.

The Pembina Institute, for all its rhetoric of environmental advocacy, is nothing more than an instrument of the energy exploitation concerns whose interests it exists to serve.

All true Dog but let's not forget the real controlling power. We in the FF biz are the whores. But the public is the pimp that drives the whole enterprise. Want to change how the environment is impacted? Change the public attitude towards BAU. Good luck with that buddy.

We in the FF biz are the whores. But the public is the pimp that drives the whole enterprise.

I think a better analogy is the FF biz folks are the pushers and dealers and Joe public are the crack addicts. However at the end of the day the environment is still bearing the brunt. The public seems to be on track to changing its attitude towards BAU at about the same time as the environment is no longer able to sustain them and they all go extinct. Not a moment before!

In a nutshell.

To me, all of this is a foretaste of how the US will respond as FFs decline. CTL? No problem. GTL? No problem. Biofuels at the expense of food? No problem. Nothing is going to get in the way of BAU.


I agree Todd, and would add that as oil depletes worldwide more and more crop acreage and virgin forest will be converted to supply the demand for oil. If a farmer can make more money supplying crops for oil he will, and that will mean less food for people.

Greed is more ingrained in people than any other passion, so as oil depletes and the price of a barrel of oil rises, the greed to make money will override the satisfaction of feeding the masses. Possibly, some developed countries will regulate acreage for ethanol, but most under-developed countries will get the greed fever and allow it to go unregulated. The result will be the relatively wealthy minority of world population that demands oil, will override the majority of people that needs food. Humankind will in effect starve to death masses of people by way of greed for money and bau.

The same applies to bitumen, CTL or any other source or process to make fuel. If there is sufficient monetary motivation, it will override all environmental considerations, even human health and well being for the people downstream or the health of the planet.

I think most people underestimate the power of greed. I've seen best friends cast aside their friendship for a few more dollars. I've seen relatives cast aside long held family connections for a fist full of inherited funds. People will steal, rob, threaten and file lawsuits for the mighty Green, and the more money involved the greater the greed.

In the movie Fargo, near the end, the woman police-person says to the murderer in the back seat that did so for greed, "There's a lot more to life than a little bit of money you know." But you wouldn't know it by the way people conduct themselves. Get ready during the decline of oil to see greed on a scale you would have never imagined possible.

It sounds like you might like the book Robert reviewed--also up now on The Oil Drum.

To me, all of this is a foretaste of how the US will respond as FFs decline. CTL? No problem. GTL? No problem.

The topic of one of my first ever essays at TOD:


You can Greenwash this as much as you want, but it is still a rape and scrape exploitation of a fragile resource, for the benefit of profit and the bottom line for a capitalist class.


I'm not any happier about this situation than any of you guys but lets not forget that at least in the richer countries the benefits of the exploitation of ff have trickled down to such an extent that although I am by current American standards hardly any better than a puaper(our little farm and everything on it would not sell for as much as a modest house in many places) by any reasonable standard I am as rich as any prince wholived a century or two ago-the only things missing worth missing are the servants and maybe the harem -but I'm to old for that anyway.

We have air conditioning,central heat,high speed internet,cell phones,electric stoves,refrigerators and freezers,a half a dozen motor vehicles,television,and modern medical care-Momma is alive because the technology explosion made possible by ff made medical miracles possible-it is likely that Daddy would be almost unable to walk without his new knee and I have had a close call or two myself.

The odds are pretty good that I will live twenty years or more longer that the last centuries princes too.

Some of the stuff we eat is not as good a quility as in times gone by but we eat better than any older generation-we can afford a oranges and grapes in January even thiugh we are not well to do.

The public may be too dense to 'get' depletion but it can understand the points I have just made very well.

It will not do to forget these things when framing the terms of the arguments that are presented for public consumption.

Americans in my estimation still tend to look up to rather than down on the rich.

It's not yet time as a practical or tactical matter to frame the environmental argument in class terms in my opinion but if the spotlight can be kept on the excesses of the financial industries the time is coming soon.

In general, one would expect green house gasses to increase as the amount of fossil fuels required for extraction and processing increases. This is the same as GHG increasing as EROI decreases. The two things that would tend to act in opposite directions are

1. Venting and flaring - A problem particularly in Africa

2. Cogeneration credits, if heat and electricity generated from the processes can both be used.

Based on the relatively low EROI of oil sands oil, one would expect oil sands oil to be relatively high in terms of GHG. A report by the Alberta Research Energy Research Institute claims that with co-generation credits, the green house gasses for oil sands can be brought down to the level of greenhouse gasses can be brought down to those for conventional oil. It says

The reports also found that direct emissions from the oil sands are generally about 10% higher than direct emissions from other crudes in the U.S. refineries but, when cogeneration is taken into consideration, it is likely that oil sands crudes are on par with conventional crudes in terms of GHG emissions.

I doubt that enough co-generation is done at this time to make this really a big offset, but it is at least one helpful approach longer term.

Using traditional measures, without co-processing credits, this is what the greenhouse gas graphs look like from the reports referenced by the footnotes to this Oil Drum post:

Graph above from Report referenced as by Skone and Gerdes.

Graph directly referenced in Footnote 13, from this report.

Please clarify for me Gail: isn't the prime user of the cogen the tar sand recovery project itself? Wouldn't that be double dipping? Net-net you're still generating a lot of GHG but not as much thanks to cogen. But a lot more if you weren't processing that crud anyway?

I know that with Chevron's Kern River heavy oil plant, they were exporting a lot of electricity to the grid. (They were also selling their processed water for agricultural use).

My impression of the current study by Jacobs Consultancy is that they are looking more at hypothetically what could be done, rather than what is really being done. My impressions is that what electricity is being generated is currently being used internally. I don't know how well the calculations are reflecting the current state of affairs--if nothing else, the calculations are likely on older data, and if there is more co-generation now, it likely wouldn't be reflected in the data.

Thanks Gail. I was referring to the Canadian tar sands specifically. As you say, cogen is a nice add-on when there's a local consumer that would be substituting for another source.

Two good books below on the topic generally available from booksellers and public libraries. Search engine-able for further reviews/discussion.

After reading these books I have to say I felt rather alarmed about the oil sands. I don't see how a project like this can trusted or how the end product is worth the damage done. Rapid, simultaneous development of the major oil sands deposits have some of the characteristics of something you'd expect to come across during the heyday of the USSR: lots of big talk and ideologically driven promises in exchange for some questionable, highly rationalized economic benefit and massive damage to the environment. Nikiforuk mentions the social costs to Alberta of some of the developments associated with the tar sands which includes such things as prostitutes trafficked from all over the world to Alberta, coked-out resource workers wrecking their new Ford F-150s on the highway to Fort McMoney. Important stuff, I'd like to know more about the hidden social disasters that come with all this alleged prosperity, never mind the damage to air, water and landscape. Nikiforuk also gets going on the stupidly low royalty rates Canada charges for its oil. They were something like half of what the UK charges, for example, at the time of publication. Either way, both works have a lot of important insights and belong in any Peak Oiler's library.

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil & The future of a Continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care) by William Marsden


Thanks for the book suggestions.
We live in Bizaro World to actually be discussing this with a straight face.

I get the benefit of the perspective of being in the area and shake my head at the rhetoric of the "buyers". Call me irresponsible, but is this issue that much different from the drug and violence problem caused by the demand in the U.S.? Canada is being ruined by the voracious appetite for both oil and drugs.

Other than Gail, has anyone actually been in this region? Pictures of the Boreal forest may look good from the air, but having lived in and around them, they can be miserable places for humans. The climate is awful pretty much year round and if the black flies don't drive you insane, the mosquitoes will kill you. And, the mosquitoes get bigger and meaner the farther north you go.

Frankly, very few people cared about anything north of 50 degrees before Fort McMurray become the environmental cause de celibre. That being said, I can say from first hand experience that the waste water problem will be their biggest problem. I've worked on the engineering for ground water pump systems to literally collect the ground water seepage from the tailings pond and put it back in. The tailings pond has grown so large the mass is driving the water through semi-permeable layers and it has to be collected before it makes it way into nearby creeks.

I like the question about the social impacts because we get to see it every day. People are making too much money in Fort Mac and it gets crazy. I can't fault them. I kid you not, a mobile home - a single wide - goes for $380,000! When I started poking around the real estate listings in consideration for some jobs, I thought it was a misprint or a joke. Surely they got the wrong picture with the ad? Nope, a standard family home is over $700,000. The place is insane and sometimes reminds me of the Cocaine Cowboy days in Miami. (It's a bit of a stretch in the comparison, but the underlying forces are similar).

It may sound like our national pride is hurt somewhat by the criticisms as it has all the appearance of the pot calling the kettle black. But, who is funding and buying this product?


Any chance you have any info on what contaminants are in those tailings?

I understand the hydraulics, and the hydrogeology, I'm just trying to tie in the contaminant loading (what and how much) to the picture.

I haven't personally been that far north in AB, but I do know about Northern climes, and no, they aren't the most hospitable for humans (thus Canada only has the population it does, located where it is) BUT is hospitability for humans the measuring stick by which we rank the 'value' of an environment?

So by this measure the Arctic/Antarctic has no redeeming value? Alpine regions above 4000ft? The bottom of the Mariana Trench?

Love the Cocaine Cowboy reference! One doesn't get to use that one very often in day to day conversation!

See my comment up above about the patent for centrifuging tailings to get the desirable minerals out. It gives at least a little information on what is in them. I am sure there are a bunch of less desirable minerals. Such a process wouldn't get rid of them, but might isolate them for proper disposal. Of course, one doesn't know if anything will come of this--but I heard the possibility of centrifuging mentioned when I was in Canada as well.

I should append my own comment as to the "buyers". I failed to acknowledge the net oil flows into/out of the U.S./Canada market. Canada exports oil and gas from the western provinces but imports in the eastern provinces. Canada is essentially using the U.S. west/east pipeline system.

What triggered this comment was the reference to a national energy policy, or lack thereof in Canada. One of the biggest holes is a west-to-east pipeline in Canada. All of ours are oriented towards the market to the south.

If there were a cohesive energy plan for BC and Alberta, we would be developing over 5 to 10 GW of wind energy in eastern BC and exporting it to Alberta primarily for use in the tar/oil sands. We could add another 5 GW of hydro electric power as well. AESO has identified the intertie transmission construction in their $15 billion capital budget plan. Now if BC can get their collective heads out of their collective arses and build the clean, renewable energy sources! This would help a lot with production and clean up capacity in the region.

I don't know the contaminants in the tailings ponds, but you can bet they aren't nice. However, it would be ironic if there were valuable trace or rare earth minerals that could be recovered by centrifuging - just thinking out loud.

If there were a cohesive energy plan for BC and Alberta, we would be developing over 5 to 10 GW of wind energy in eastern BC and exporting it to Alberta primarily for use in the tar/oil sands. We could add another 5 GW of hydro electric power as well.

Alberta already has considerably more wind power generation than B.C. because Southern Alberta is nearly ideal for wind farms. Or, as the inhabitants say, "If the wind ever stopped blowing here, everybody would fall down because they don't know how to walk without having something to lean against."

There are a couple or three GW of undeveloped hydroelectric potential on the rivers in the oil sands areas. However, the most important factor is that the oil sands plants are themselves capable of generating quite a few gigawatts of exportable electric power.

Other than Gail, has anyone actually been in this region? Pictures of the Boreal forest may look good from the air, but having lived in and around them, they can be miserable places for humans. The climate is awful pretty much year round and if the black flies don't drive you insane, the mosquitoes will kill you.

Don't forget the brisk, invigorating winters. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Northern Alberta was -78°F (-61°C). At those temperatures, if you drop a steel pipe on the ground, it shatters. Exposed flesh freezes in about 10 seconds, so the key to being outside is not to expose any flesh for more than 9 seconds. Starting a car is a challenge, and as for diesel trucks, forget it. They start the engines up in the fall and they don't turn them off until spring.

The mosquitoes won't kill you if you use enough DEET, but the bears might. My relatives who homesteaded up there were very negative on the subject because a bear ate one of their neighbors. There are really a lot of bears - I started to go out of a construction trailer one morning, and there were five of them on the porch. So I stayed inside until they got bored and left. Sometimes they got inside and scared the wits out of the cook. On another occasion, the cook scared the wits out of a bear, and it tore the hinges right off the bear-proof door in its haste to exit the kitchen. If they got too bad, we would hire one of the local First Nations people to exercise his aboriginal hunting rights with respect to the bear.

The environmentalists really should go up there and get closer to the bears. It would be a learning experience for them, and I'm sure the bears would get a lot out of it, too.

At the Surmont in situ facility, we were shown the exercise facility for workers who live onsite--soon to be a large share of staff, with a 28 day on, 28 day off schedule.The facility is being doubled in size. The management definitely does not want workers trying to jog outside, because of the risk of bears.

While I was up in Canada, I read about an oil facility worker who was killed by some type of wild animal (not a bear--I forget what it was) while out on a jog.

Well, it's not just the bears. There are lots of things out in the woods that might kill you if act too much like food. Jogging is bad, because they assume that you must be some kind of prey animal if you are running.

Around here it's mostly the grizzlies that mangle the joggers and mountain bikers, but a cougar did pick off a cross-country skier a few years ago. And of course the tourists are always getting trampled by the elk.

So, the bottom line is, don't act like food. Act like you own the forest, move slow, and make a lot of noise. Some people think a .38 is some kind of self-defense, but if you shoot a grizzly with it, you'll just make it mad. If you think you need a gun, carry a pump-action 12 gauge shotgun loaded with at least 5 rounds of 00 magnum buckshot. Or an RPG or 50 caliber machine gun if you happen to be in the military.

That will work for everything except the cougars. You'll never hear them coming, so take someone to watch your back. If they're kind of plump and slow, that will work for the bears, too. Remember, you don't have to outrun the bear, you only have to outrun your friend.

Other than Gail, has anyone actually been in this region? Pictures of the Boreal forest may look good from the air, but having lived in and around them, they can be miserable places for humans. The climate is awful pretty much year round and if the black flies don't drive you insane, the mosquitoes will kill you. And, the mosquitoes get bigger and meaner the farther north you go.

I was in northern Alberta & Yukon in the 1970s. The boreal forest ecosystem was impressive and it makes me sick that greedy assholes are wrecking it for the sake of nasty black crud. The climate wasn't "awful" nor was it a miserable place to be. Biting insects can be annoying in the north country but so what? They're just a component of biodiversity and are interesting in their own right. And as for bears: I've hiked extensively in places where grizzlies occur. They've never bothered me & I'm not afraid of them. I've photographed grizzlies from fairly close range and they basically ignored me. Black bears are little more dangerous than raccoons. Both can raid your food if you leave it out at night where they can get to it.

And as for bears: I've hiked extensively in places where grizzlies occur. They've never bothered me & I'm not afraid of them. I've photographed grizzlies from fairly close range and they basically ignored me. Black bears are little more dangerous than raccoons.

I've hiked extensively in bear country, but I'm always nervous because I know much more about bears than you do.

The facts are that grizzly bears can be extremely aggressive when frightened or provoked, and their fight-or-flight responses are heavily biased toward fight. Black bears are much less aggressive than grizzlies, but a few of them have developed the unfortunate habit of stalking people with the intention of eating them, which grizzlies seldom do. Bears are unbelievably strong, and can run unbelievably fast if they really want to. A grizzly could probably outrun a horse for a short distance, and if it caught it, it could kill it.

Not too far from my house there is a nice plaque dedicated to the memory of a young lady who was killed by a grizzly bear while out jogging in the woods. The bear had been eating dandelions on a nearby golf course and becoming increasingly aggressive toward the golfers. There are some mountain bike trails near here, and every so often the local hospital has to do reconstructive surgery on a mountain biker who startled a grizzly bear on the trail. A few years ago I was backpacking on a trial, and when I walked out, I discovered the trail had been closed while I was on it because a grizzly had killed a fisherman on a nearby stream. There are some areas in the Canadian Rocky Mountain parks that the park wardens will not let you hike unless you are in a group of four or more. They have found that grizzlies can count and will (almost) never attack a group of more than three people.

When you get into Canadian wilderness, you should be careful because there are things in the woods that can and will kill you if you annoy them or they're hungry. In the U.S., most of them have been exterminated except in extremely remote areas. Up north here, it's a less controlled environment.

Probably the best reference work on the subject is "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" by Stephen Herrero. It should be required reading for everyone who hikes in bear country.

I'm a vertebrate zoologist but my work has focused more on fish and herps than on birds or mammals, so you probably do know more about bears than I do. Black bears are common where I live. They sometimes get hungry when the acorn mast crop is poor and come into residential neighborhoods and eat dog food or even break into homes & raid refrigerators. I've never heard of a black bear attacking anyone. As for grizzlies, I've been around them several times in Alaska. They are indeed formidable animals. I would sneak up on many animals in order to photograph them unawares, but I never did this with grizzlies. I didn't want to startle them and thus provoke an aggressive encounter. But when the grizzlies were aware of my presence, they seemed completely uninterested in me, and would allow a slow approach to within fairly close proximity. They seemed far more interested in foraging or in interacting with one another than they were with me. John Muir encountered grizzlies often in California, back when the "bear flag state" still had big bears. He never carried a gun, never experienced an aggressive encounter, and scoffed at people who were afraid of bears. I feel the same way.

I ran into a large grizzly (big silver tip male) last month while fly fishing just above the Teton boundary in Yellowstone. An amazing and beautiful animal. They do make me a bit nervous, as I have been around them quite a bit in Alaska and BC, but it has never stopped me from going into the back country.
Black Bears for the most part are just big Raccoons, I agree.
It saddens me that this discussion is actually taking the raping of this beautiful place as a good thing.

It saddens me that this discussion is actually taking the raping of this beautiful place as a good thing.

TOD isn't a conservation or environmental activism website. It's an energy exploitation & resource depletion website, dominated by technocopian idealists who value some "greener" version of business as usual over environmental integrity. There's a good bit of veiled advocacy for energy industry interests on behalf of TOD PTBs. What's funny is that the same level of denial or ignorance regulars rail about on the part of PO or AGW deniers, they exhibit themselves when it comes to environmental & population issues.

Enjoy the bears hightrekker, while they still exist. They won't be around long, and neither will we. They won't harm you unless you act stupid around them.

Enjoy the bears hightrekker, while they still exist. They won't be around long, and neither will we. They won't harm you unless you act stupid around them.

Cheer up, the bears will be around a lot longer than you will. There are more freakin' black bears in the oil sands areas than there are chipmunks. If the government was concerned about them, they wouldn't let people hunt them. They let people hunt them because nobody wants a forest full of starving black bears. It's best to keep the numbers down to a level the habitat can support.

The oil sands areas are not good grizzly bear habitat, and I doubt there are any there. My back yard is prime grizzly bear habitat. If I hear something moving around out there in the middle of the night, I am NOT going to go out there with a flashlight asking "What's that?" because I know what it is.

Acting stupid around bears means not noticing them sneaking up behind you.

To the west of here rise the Carrizo Mountains, a laccolithic range. The last grizzly in the state of Arizona was killed there in 1938. Legend has it that a relict population of cryptic grizzlies still exist in the South San Juan Wilderness Area northeast of here. I've hiked there & seen no sign of them. Grizzlies are extinct in Colorado too. There actually was a relict population in the Sierra del Nido, Chihuahua, Mexico. I've hiked there also, and saw no sign of them. They're extinct. California ironically has a grizzly on the state flag, 'ironic' because they are extinct in California. I'd like to see grizzlies reintroduced to the US Southwest. Colorado's Weminunche Wilderness Area would be ideal habitat for them, and so would the Gila & Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas in southwestern New Mexico.

I'd like to see grizzlies reintroduced to the US Southwest.

Sure, where would you like them delivered. We've got a good selection, although at the moment, most of them are roaming around the backcountry, fattening up on berries for the winter. We've only got one grizzly and one black bear here in town (Canmore). But we've got the radio collared, so we can pick them up any time you want.

We had good success reintroducing wolves to Montana and Wyoming. The parks people in Yellowstone wanted something to control the herbivore population, and the parks people here in Canada had the means (wolves). So, they opened up a wolf corridor down the front ranges of the Rockies from Banff to Waterton National Park in Canada, across the normally free-fire zone in between. Then when nobody was looking, they let them slip across the international border to Glacier National Park in the U.S. Now that they're in the U.S. they are an endangered species so nobody can shoot them.

Here in Canada they're not endangered, so people are back to shooting them now that the objective of the exercise has been accomplished.

By the way, here's a video someone sent me of bear management techniques in Canada. You should take notes on how it's done.

This is a good video, thought that you would enjoy it.... Rick Mercer of CBC and a little bit of Canadiana. http://algonquincanoeing.blogspot.com/2009/03/rick-mercer-visits-algonqu...

Mexican wolves have been reintroduced into Arizona's Blue Range Primitive Area & New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. They aren't faring too well, however, because the damn Catron County redneck ranchers keep shooting them. I'd like to see wolves reintroduced into southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains, but I don't think Canadian wolves or bears are well suited for the North American Southwest. Then again, there aren't any endemic grizzlies anymore. They're extinct. So reintroduced bears would have to be northern, at least as far north as Yellowstone.

Grizzly bears and wolves would do extremely well in the U.S. southwest if people would just stop shooting them.

The grizzly bear is on the flag of California for good reason - the state used to have thousands of them.
Grizzly bears used to range from northern Alaska to northern Mexico, and east to the Great Lakes, but have been largely exterminated in the lower 48 states and the Canadian prairies. It would be hard to reintroduce them to populated areas since they do tend to come into conflict with people a lot.

Wolves are highly adaptable and historically had the largest and most extensive range of all mammals except humans. In North America they ranged from northern Alaska to southern Mexico, and from Atlantic to Pacific. They were exterminated through most of the lower 48 states, but have been increasing recently mainly due to migration from Canada. In Canada they still extend from the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. They would be easier to reintroduce to the southern U.S. than grizzly bears, but farmers would have to get used to them chowing down on their livestock from time to time. They seldom if ever attack people.

I'll keep this in mind next time we're out in the woods and come across some grizzlies. All I have to do is run faster than you.

My concern with this discussion is people may get complacent about being around these animals and that is a bad policy. Maybe its the media, but there have been increasing attacks on people in the back woods in BC and Alberta. The cause is most likely more people, or those trekking where they shouldn't. I don't fault the animals, they gotta eat too.

For the record, don't forget rutting moose as a dangerous animal. Normally they will get away from you as soon and far as possible. But during mating season, males will attack and kill anything remotely resembling a contender.

This reminds me of the trip my parents and I had to Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska last year during the labour day weekend. We went to the State park for the grizzly viewing as they caught spawning salmon in the creek. My dad and I are walking along the boardwalk talking away and come up on the seating and viewing area where all sorts of people had their telephoto lens trained on the creek side while wearing the requisite photographer vests and Tilly hats. It was quieter than a funeral and some looked at us as inconsiderate buffoons ruining their wildlife viewing moment.

Now we've hunted quite a bit and spent a lot of time in the woods and obviously many of these National Geographic wanna-be photographers haven't. We just looked at each other and said, "If a grizzly is hungry, he's coming here to eat whether we're talking or not." A Polka band could be playing and those bears are coming for dinner. I think people watch too much TV and take their queues from Merl Perkins.

You don't need a gun unless you are in heavy grizzly country. The better tool is a long walking stick with a hard ball or end. Haul off with one of these like a baseball bat across the snout or head and it will deter just about anything. But come across a grizzly and we'll see how far theory will get you. Chances are you are going to lose 10 lbs, all of it brown ;-)

Yes, people are getting to be too complacent around large animals. They've watched too many Disney movies, and they think large animals are friendly and want to be photographed. They don't notice that the animal's ears are laid back and its hair is standing on end.

Yes, I know that moose are dangerous. There was one wandering around the dog-walking park across the road a few days ago. The dogs were chasing it and the kids were throwing things at it. Finally it got fed up and took a run at a little girl, so a wildlife officer shot it. If people had just left it alone, that moose would eventually have wandered off to better pasture, and still be alive today.

Actually, what works extremely well on grizzly bears is pepper spray (the giant economy size all us hikers in grizzly country carry). Studies have shown it actually works better on bears than big-bore rifles, because the bears don't react aggressively to it. Shoot a big grizzly, and it will probably attack you and tear your face off. Spray it in the eyes with pepper spray, and it will run away and cry.

I did a Google search for bear attacks this month, and this is what I found:

Grizzly bear attack survivor recovering in hospital September 8, 2009: A man who survived a grizzly bear attack has been upgraded from critical to serious condition. Max Tylee is recovering from surgery for head injuries. The 70-year-old veteran hunter was near MacKenzie when he and his wife encountered the bear on Sunday afternoon. The bear attacked Max, biting and clawing at his head. His wife, Josie tried to draw the bear away from her husband. But it charged her, so she ran for their truck. Max made just one mistake and it almost cost him his life. Max left his hunting rife in his truck.

Black bear attacks man in his Colorado home; latest in string of bear run-ins in Aspen September 11, 2009: The man had gone to the first floor of his home to check on his three barking dogs when the bear struck him in the head. The man did not suffer life-threatening injuries and was being treated at a local hospital. Wildlife officers are searching for the bear in the neighborhood and have set up a trap in the area. Wildlife officers in and near the resort town about 200 miles west of Denver have killed at least nine bears so far this summer because of their aggressive behavior.

Man survives grizzly attack September 16, 2009: Bow hunter Rory Chapple thought he was a goner when a grizzly sow attacked him from behind while he was bow hunting in a remote corner of northern B.C. “I just heard ‘huff huff’ behind me and I turned around and she’s on full charge, so she actually let me walk by her about 100 yards before she came at me from behind. I had time to get my bow up in front of me and I was backing up as fast as I could and I tripped and fell and just as I was falling down she lunged to get on top of me then I stuck her in the throat with an arrow,” explained Chapple.

Woman dies after bear mauling; car accident September 17, 2009: A 46-year-old woman from Montreal has died after she was mauled by a bear north of Trois-Rivieres. Her husband was able to chase the bear away and put her in their pickup truck, but 45 minutes into the drive to the hospital, he lost control of the vehicle and crashed in a ditch.

Sheep herder recovering after grizzly attack September 19, 2009: Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials say a sheep herder is expected to fully recover from injuries he received when he was mauled by a grizzly bear. The shepherd went out to check on the sheep with a flashlight and that's when he encountered the grizzly sow, which was protecting her young and a food source. The bear briefly attacked him, and he was seriously injured.

Grizzly bear attacks tourists in Japan September 20, 2009: A grizzly bear has attacked a group of nine tourists who came across the animal at a resting area on a highway, leaving four of them with serious injuries. A video shows the bear launching a vicious attack on one helpless man as others look on in horror. A police officer who bravely stepped into help the man was also seriously injured by the bear. The beast then ran into a three-story building and attacked several more people before being shot by local hunters.

So, you shouldn't get too comfortable around these big carnivores - they are unpredictable and dangerous. Give them a lot of space.

P.S. I just missed seeing a big grizzly today. I was hiking around a ski area to see the larches turning color, and the sign at the office said, "HUGE grizzly in area". Apparently it had been wandering around the buildings. I didn't see it, but a couple of the other hikers did. It was really big, and it was heading into the next valley, fortunately.

It is interesting to read Andrew Nikiforuk's recommendations as what be done from Tar Sands: Dirty Oil & The future of a Continent:

1. Admit the magnitude and complexity of the energy crisis.

2. Slow down the tar sands development and cap production at 2 million barrels a day.

3. Establish a national strategy of energy security and innovation.

4. Impose a carbon tax with a 100% dividend.

5. Challenge the first law of petropolitics.
a. Mandate transparency and freedom of information.
b. Separate tar sands corporate tax revenues from general revenue to build a national sovereign fund.
c. Reassert accountability in tax regimes.

6. Challenge continental energy integration. (Limit US exports--use Canadian oil for Canadians).

7. Relocalize food production.

8. Abandon economic dead-ends like Carbon Capture and Storage.

9. Orient all rural and urban planning to renewable energy.

10. Pick the lowest hanging fruit first. (Work on reducing "fugitive emissions"; also, Canadians could conserve in their oil usage)

11. Don't wait for government. (Walk more; eat local; etc.)

12. Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This book was one of many references I read before writing my Oil Sands articles (Part 1 and Part 2). When thinking people look at this problem, they see a very complex problem, with a lot of political interconnections. The answers aren't necessarily as simple as knee-jerk responses would suggest.

AN narrates a visual presentation drawn from the book's content here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjjnEzoxEI8

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil & The future of a Continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care) by William Marsden

I read those books, too. You won't get a lot of real facts from them because their authors have a distinct political agenda, and they don't actually know much about their subject matter. They interview a lot of people with axes to grind, but those people don't really know much either. The truth is out there, somewhere, but you won't find it reading these books.

You can go to Alberta and watch "coked-out resource workers wrecking their new Ford F-150s on the highway to Fort McMoney", or you can go to Los Angeles and watch coked-out movie stars wrecking their Ferraris on Hollywood Boulevard. Either way the motivation is the same - too much money, not enough brains.

The prostitutes have always been there. They were there when the Sundance Kid was in Alberta taking a break from robbing banks in the U.S., they were there when Al Capone was shopping for Canadian whiskey to sell in Chicago, and they're there now. They follow the money.

One frequently sees a reference by environmental groups to green house gasses from oil sands production being three to five time those from production oil production from other sources. If one chooses one's sources exactly correctly, and does the calculation exactly as the Pimbina Institute does, one can in fact get this result--but it takes a lot of doing.

The footnotes to this Oil Drum post give three different references that provide information that shed light on the ratio of GHG of oil sands production to conventional production. As far as I can see, only one of them gives the quoted result--and that one gives the result, only if you compare numbers exactly correctly. According to my calculations, the three different indications of the ratio of green house gasses during oil sands "production" are shown in the exhibit below. Note that according to the definition of "Stage 1", what is included in GHG for "production" is

1. GHG during extraction
2. If upgrading is done, GHG for upgrading are also included. (This is the reason the "synthetic crude from oil sands" in Line F is so much higher than the "crude bitumen" amount in Line E.)

The indication that Pembina relies on to get its result of the range of 3.2 to 4.5 is the first reference shown, Skone and Gerdes. If you look at the report itself, you find it is not done by Skone and Gerdes. Instead it is done by a subcontractor to the DOE/NETL, and Skone and Gerdes are just the NETL contacts. There is a huge disclaimer in the front:


This report was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference therein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed therein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.

The "trick" to getting the range quoted in the text for North American crude of 3.2 to 4.5 is to take the GHG number of 111.3/kg per barrel as calculated by in the report with the disclaimer, and divide by the United States reported value of 24.5 to get the 4.5 for the high end of the range, and by the Canadian value of 35.2 to get the 3.2 for the low end of the range. (I guess Mexico isn't part of North America!)

If you look closely at the other reports, they don't support such a high ratio. The report by Alex Charpentier et al. is a strange one. It spends a lot of time looking at what CO2 emissions might look like, if you took in situ production, and then applied upgrading to it. This isn't something that is really being done much--and certainly there was not actual data as to what the CO2 emissions might be on this process. If this combined process were in fact done, it might in fact produce fairly high "Stage 1" emissions--but it really isn't an appropriate thing to look at to see what current Stage 1 emissions are, that don't include upgrading. The one example the paper looks at with actual SAGD processing shows relatively low emissions for the production of bitumen using SAGD.

My calculations are fairly rough estimates, but seem to indicate that a ratio of "2" of oil sands emissions to conventional emissions for "production" (which is really Stage 1 of a 5 stage process) is just as good an estimate as the frequently quoted estimate of "3 to 5".


I appreciate your dedication to hard fact finding, and clearing up the calculations so we can better (read: more accurately and with greater confidence) comment on this in the future.

However, Current/conventional oil production is clearly already a large stress on the environment, so isn't debating whether this is 200% or 450% worse slightly pedantic and distracting from what the real issue is?

Sustainability and 'oil sands' should never be in the same sentance unless it is as follows:

"To promote boreal forest sustainability, oil sands projects (as it is currently known) are now and forever shut down.

The emissions related to the "Stage 1" slice of production on average amount to 7% to 8% of total GHG emissions according to this report. So, one would think that 4.5 times 7% to 8% would be a bigger deal than 2 times 7% to 8%. When you are down to 2 times 7% to 8%, you are getting to total expected emissions being 7% or 8% higher because of the higher front end emissions, which in the whole scheme of things isn't all that much higher.

Also, the 3 to 5 range is what the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the others are so concerned about. If getting to it is a real stretch, maybe it shouldn't be quoted.

The EROI of oil sands is sufficiently low that it is hard to see that it will be expanded to affect more than a relatively tiny patch of boreal forest. Also, it is hard to see that in situ production will really affect boreal forests very much. The footprint is pretty small, and work is being done to reduce the number of trees cut for seismic lines. When trees are cut for early evaluation, they can be replanted pretty quickly. I know ConocoPhillips was doing this, but I don't know if other companies are.

These CO2 numbers are a bit strange.
According to EPA to burn a barrel of crude releases 430 kg of CO2.
By my calc to burn a barrel of oil turned into gasoline releases around 540 kg of CO2.

In Appendix A of the report,


They give mining(35 kg per barrel)+ upgrading(45 kg per barrel)=80 kg per barrel but they give 62-164 kg per barrel.
Similarly for SAGD Appendix A would give(55 kg per barrel) + 45 kg/b upgrade =100 kg/b but they give 99-176 kg. These extreme ranges seem biased IMO.

The post makes the statement that tar sands oil makes 3.2-4.5 more GHG thanconventional oil. Looking around the web it looks like conventional drilling is around 25 kgCO2 per barrel( Panda.org say 28.6 for conventional).

Panda.org says mining produces 85.5 kg/ barrel mineable(closer to $80 figured above).

Here's another that says <25 kg/barrel.

BTW, Netl gives says that tarsands or venezulean heavy will increase wheels to well emissions by 15% for diesel/mmbtu, which is not a significant amount of increase IMO.

US average 18.4kg + 76.7 kg = 95.1 kg versus
32.9kg + 76.7kg = 109.6 kg, 109.6/95.1=1.15
i.e.--conventional US produces 540.1 kgCO2/bbl versus 622.5 kgCO2/bbl tar sands.


They list Cyclic Steam as a method and it is used in earlier operations at Cold Lake and Primrose but SAGD is twice as efficient as CSS and particularly appropriate for Alberta's geology, so the assumption of continued CSS there makes little sense. The water usage is far lower than mining so I'd say this technology will predominate future operations.


Most of the mineable areas are already under lease so it is
implausible to assume these will be closed unless owners are compensated by the Canadian government(crying over spilt milk).

Overall, tar sands will increase emissions by 15% per barrel
and newer methods should keep emissions tolerably low.
Pembina offers no alternatives and the pieces is mainly advocacy.

I think I would come to some pretty similar conclusions to what you show at the end of your comment.

The extreme CO2 range of 99-176 kg quoted relates only to Stage 1 of the process. It is from the report by Charpentier et al., which I consider to be quite strange. The Charpentier report almost looks like it was put together with the intent of getting a high range--it mostly looks at hypothetical numbers of what in situ production with upgrading might look like in terms of CO2 production--that is what the 99-176 range comes from. The Oil Drum post itself does not explain what the range really relates to. The one example based on actual production (shown in a separate supplementary report, and not included in the range) is much lower.

Note the one indication on the right, based on actual SAGD data. Note this exhibit supposedly relates to in situ without upgrading, but when you read the footnotes (and in particular the derivation of the error bar), one wonders. The indications from this exhibit were not included in the 99-176 range quoted--strange given the description provided in the text given to The Oil Drum.

When this post was originally submitted, the Charpentier reference was the main CO2 reference, supposedly supporting a production GHG range of 3 to 5 times conventional GHG. When I objected, the section was reworked to what you see now.

I think I would come to some pretty similar conclusions to what you show at the end of your comment.

Okay Gail, you piqued my interest.
What conclusions did you not agree with and why?

I didn't really see anything I disagreed with--I was just focusing on the part at the end, because they seemed to be more of the form of conclusions.

Canadian filmaker Peter Mettler has just created a beautiful and scary film, Petropolis.

The film is made largely from flights over the oil sands.

Its a great way to see the scale of the sands.

The discussion thus far has largely centered on the carbon footprint of oil sands as compared to that of conventional oil.This is a very distant secondary issue that is dwarfed by the main present and future problem with oil sands: the environmental impact of those incredibly huge tailings ponds. The carbon footprint question is a red herring that diverts attention away from the real issue: those tailings ponds. This is something that the boosters of oil sands here at TOD would rather downplay.

As the tailing ponds currently occupy some 130 square kilometers (49 square miles) and are continually growing in size, the inventory of aqueous-phase petroleum-related toxic substances is truly enormous. And as one poster with direct experience on the subject pointed out, there is a massive interceptor well system in operation that collects (or more accurately, attempts to collect) seepage from the ponds and pumps it back into the ponds. This is a very clear evidence that the ponds are leaking like a sieve.

I don't know if their is a groundwater monitoring system associated with the tailings ponds, and if there is one, how extensive it might be. (Anybody out there have any direct knowledge of such?) If there isn't, then that would constitute gross environmental negligence, given the size and scope of the potential problem. But given the clout of the oil industry in Alberta, I wouldn't at all be surprised if such a monitoring system is marginal at best.

If indeed it exists, it would be very interesting to review groundwater monitoring data to get a handle on the mass loading of pollutants seeping from the pond. I would venture that in terms of lbs per day of the various chemical constituents it is quite huge. When you have that much area of liquid plus a considerable driving head, even a tiny amount of leakage per acre adds up to one enormous release.

Then we have the very uncomfortable question: If the ponds are inherently leaky, will this interceptor well system have to be operated in perpetuity? Or to ask the question in reverse: What happens when the interceptor well system is turned off (such as if Suncor went out of business and the Canadian government balks at picking up the tab)?

Just as some US banks and corporations are 'too big to fail', I fear that the size and scope of the tailing pond problem is going to prove to be 'too big to fix' and despite some vague promises to the contrary, when the time comes to do something, nothing will be done. This will become particularly evident if our collective economies continue to swirl down the toilet.

So if one is concerned about environmental matters (and it appears that some of the oil sands boosters around here are not terribly concerned), then to put it quite simply: It's the ponds, stupid!

But the tar sands region is way up there literally in the middle of nowhere, out of sight and out of mind, and the only people affected is a small group of politically unimportant Native Americans. So the fix is in.

As I've said before, environmental issues will increasingly count for naught, as we dig, drill, and scrape for every last molecule of reduced carbon we can get out hands on.

So, this bickering over relative CO2 emission strikes me as quite fatuous.

The problem with closing the tar sands mines is how you do it.

If the government simply closes them how does it compensate the owners for trillions of dollars.

My understanding is that only 20% of the tar sand resource is mineable(35Gb),that the mining area covers 1250 sq km,
or 480 square miles and that the surface mines will be exhausted in about 30 years.

This is the size of the city of Los Angeles(460 square miles), which is probably less environmentally recoverable that the surface mines at Ft. McMurray.

Tar sands mines would cover an area that is 12 times larger than Wyoming's Black Warrior coal mine.

I certainly agree that rigorous environmental standards should be applied. The environmental industry has excellent technology for remediating contaminated water and soil such are polluted by PCBs. If this were Russia or China or Africa I might share your concern that the would remain scarred forever but in North America the majority of these things do get cleaned up.

...in North America the majority of these things do get cleaned up.

My distinct impression is that this is not the case. I don't have data at hand but I've read of the superfund running out of money.


Another thing is that much pollution doesn't come under the superfund. The lake I live near is polluted with mercury from old gold mining tailings. It is recommended that one not eat fish from this lake. I've read of many such mining sites. No cleanup being done.

Superfund has actually done a lot.


47281 sites have been entered into Superfund
35053 sites have been removed or archived
12228 remain of which 1569 are National Priority List sites.
1030 of which have completed construction (2/3 of NPL)


Here's a typical list

Site Name HRS Site Score
FRENCH, LTD. 63.00
MCKIN CO. 61.00
OESER CO. 69.00
VERTAC, INC. 65.00

Coal ash ponds could be more closely regulated but rules from Bush years have not classified it as hazardous waste.
In other words, the mechnansm for greater regulation is there, but the politicians are protecting the polluters.

IMO, we could clean up these sites if we really want to.
It's a different situation in, say Nigeria.


I suspect a lot of that list is BS generated by the EPA.

Here is a little item on Hanford:

Hanford cleanup cost soars to $11.3 billion ... if Congress will pay
It's costing Americans $1.4 million a day to build a facility to safely treat millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic waste stored in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation's leak-prone underground tanks.
When the project is completed, the bill could total $38 for every man, woman and child in the nation -- that's if the $11.3 billion price tag doesn't swell even further. It has nearly tripled in less than six years, making it a massive taxpayer burden

Oak Ridge is another one swept under the carpet. A friend of mine had a job for several years transcribing documents at Oak Ridge. He described rather wanton dumping of nuclear wastes and area where nobody really knows what was buried. A lot like the old USSR.

The government is the owner of all the land up there, and it does have strict reclamation requirements. The companies have to restore it to a condition as good as or better than they found it. Since it would be difficult to restore it to its original boggy swampiness, they intend to turn it into pasture land and bring in buffalo.

Since the government is the owner, it likes the idea of having more agricultural land, and has approved this plan. Add a little global warming, and it will probably give it away as homestead land to refugees fleeing the drought-stricken wastelands of the American southwest.

You may get the feeling that they are not completely onside with the "global warming will kill all of us" movement because they are having trouble figuring out what the downside is for them. For other people, maybe, but not for them.

The amazing thing to me about these ponds is that they are doing something that would be illegal here in Texas.

Are you sure?

The syncrude tailing ponds cover 20 square miles(50 sq. km.)

In Georgia, the giant Herman Scherer coal plant(4.5 Twh/yr) has a .77 square mile coal ash pond(.77 sq mi) and the Plant Branch has .83 square mile of ash ponds.

Texas gets 36% of its 405 Twh from coal or 146 Twh, equal to
32 Herman Scherer plants which could have 25 sq miles worth of coal ash ponds--.77 x 146/4.5 = 25 sq. mi.

State requirements for the handling of coal ash vary widely. Some states, like Alabama, do not regulate it at all, except by means of federally required water discharge permits. In Texas, the vast majority of coal ash is not considered a solid waste, according to a review of state regulations by environmental groups. There are no groundwater monitoring or engineering requirements for utilities that dump the ash on site, as most utilities do, the analysis says.


I doubt that they would be illegal in Texas.

RockyMtnGuy -

If the oil sand tailings qualified as a hazardous waste under US federal environmental statutes (in the US all state hazardous waster regulations closely follow the federal ones) and were not specifically exempted by industry category, then the tailings pond would qualify as a hazardous waste disposal facility. As such, there are rigid standards for such facilities, and one of those is the requirement for an impermeable membrane liner or liners and periphery groundwater monitoring system. As the Alberta oil sands tailings pond do not have a liner, their construction would thus never be permitted under US hazardous waste regulations.

Again, it would all hinge on whether the tailings qualify as a hazardous waste. If they did, it would most likely be due to the levels of leachable heavy metals (as determined by the Extraction Procedure under the hazardous waste regulations). The presence of certain organic constituents also might pertain.

The contents of the oil sands tailings ponds are not nearly as toxic as, for instance the sulphuric acid/arsenic mix in the Anaconda copper mine looming over Butte, Montana which I mentioned elsewhere (where the problem is not so much liquid leaching through the ground as the pit overflowing into the town water reservoir, which is a real possibility). Nor is it as toxic as what is in the uranium tailings ponds in Texas.

As I said before, what is in the oil sands tailings ponds is what is in the oil sands, minus a lot of the oil, and mixed with water. I am not sure it would be classified as hazardous waste in the U.S.

Regardless, there are no impermeable membranes on the oil sands and nothing to stop the oil leaking out. The oil does leak out of the sands into the rivers, and has always done so. A tailings pond might leak a bit faster, but they have have groundwater monitoring systems and pumps to put the water back in the ponds.

One of the things people don't realize about the oil industry is that the products it is dealing with are not particularly toxic compared to a lot of other industries (for instance, copper or uranium mining). The main problem with old oil refineries is that they used to use tetraethyl lead as an antiknock additive in gasoline, and as a result the ground is usually contaminated with lead. The oil itself is not a really big environmental problem, at least after we discovered oil-eating bacteria. If the ground is contaminated with oil, you put some bacteria into it, and they turn the oil into dirt. It takes a bit of time but its really environmentally friendly.

When I was working in heavy oil, some bright individual realized that the oily sand from our wells that we were trying to dispose of was basically the same stuff that the rural counties were paying good money to spread on the county roads to control the dust. So the oil companies approached the government and offered to oil the roads for them. After a thorough environmental analysis, they realized it was a win-win situation for all concerned. We disposed of our oily sand without building a hazardous waste disposal plant, and the rural counties got their roads oiled for free, drastically reducing their maintenance costs. Big grins all around.

The same thing applies to oil sands. You can use oil sand, unprocessed, to pave roads. It's not quite as good as asphalt, but it's close. Do you really consider asphalt pavement to be toxic waste? When U.S. states tear up old pavement, do they really truck it to hazardous waste plants to dispose of it? I suspect not.

Yes, they do have tailings ponds in Texas.
See http://www.texasep.org/html/wst/wst_6ird_mnng.html

In Texas, uranium has been mined for decades. Uranium used to be strip-mined, much as coal is mined. This mining process results in tailings. These tailing materials are placed in ponds, which often have neither natural or synthetic liners. Some ponds have leaked, contaminating soils and subsurface aquifers, as well as emitting radioactive gases into the atmosphere.*

The issue with these ponds is that it will be about 1,600 years before the radioactivity declines to a level that the EPA considers safe. Until then, the owners will have to maintain them, particularly to prevent rainwater from leaching the radioactive waste into the groundwater. I doubt the owners will still be around in 1,600 years. I have doubts that even the Texas or U.S. governments will still be there.

Also, some complaints by a Polish immigrant pastor about Chevron's Panna Maria Uranium Mill tailings ponds.
See http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/PM/on.html

My concern and awareness deepened when I heard complaints from my parishioners regarding their well water quality. I was shown letters written by the Texas Department of Health stating that their water was unsafe for drinking due to chemical, heavy metal, and radioactive contamination. My parishioners also mentioned the occurrence of birth defects in the calves born to their cattle. At the same time, I was observing that the people who lived in close proximity to the tailings pond were experiencing miscarriages, dying of cancer, and having children with birth defects, some of whom died.

Now, the Alberta oil sands tailings ponds are much bigger than these, but 1) they are not nearly this toxic. 2) they are not nearly as long-lived, and 3) there's nobody living around them.

People should really pay more attention to what is happening in their own areas. I've traveled wide areas of the U.S., and I've seen some really mind-boggling environmental indiscretions in my journeys. But I worked in the oil industry for decades, so I know what to look for. The locals apparently do not.

It seems like there are certain "popular" causes, and oil sands is one of them.

The "unpopular causes", like the uranium tailing ponds near where people live, need a lot more publicity.

What we hear is just what gets publicized, so we think we know what the worst situations are--but that isn't necessarily the case.

Well, it's all very selective. Canadian heavy oil is deemed to be "dirty", whereas California Kern River heavy oil must be "clean", because it comes from California, and California would never do anything that was environmentally insensitive. Those persons who are from California can confirm whether California would do anything that was environmentally insensitive, or not.

Interesting article in the Calgary Herald: See http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/Political+friction+rises+Canada+cl...

Political friction rises as Canada clashes with U. S. over energy

At last count, besieged federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice was confronted by 28 American states or U. S. cities which have drawn a line in the oil-soaked sands of northern Alberta, vowing to reduce or eliminate Canada's "dirty oil" from their fuel supply.

...two dozen states that have declared Canadian hydroelectricity unacceptable as a "renewable" energy source to help meet new cleaner standards as they rush to encourage homegrown alternatives to coal-fired power.

So Canadian hydro is not "renewable", whereas whatever U.S. states do must be "renewable". Presumably the people from California have some ideas about what California produces that is "renewable". After all, they're going to have all those electrical cars to plug in, and there must be something on the other side of that wall socket to generate electricity for them. B.C.'s huge Revelstoke Dam doesn't qualify.

All things considered, California residents may want to consider trading in their car for a new bicycle. And maybe look into the possibility of buying a hand-cranked air conditioner.

Naah, they're just jealous because everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas.

If a Texan is to large for a coffin, they just apply an enema and bury them in a shoe box.

I live in New Mexico. The way you get to Texas from here is go east until you smell it, then turn south 'til you step in it.

There are several things that might be helpful going on.

1. There was a regulation change in early 2009 that in effect requires oil sands tailings ponds to be retired much more quickly, and for companies to make plans that can be monitored showing their progress in reaching their goals.

The new policy replaces a voluntary element of oilsands regulation dating to the industry's birth in the mid-1960s, Smith said. The new rules go into effect in the autumn, after consultations with companies and conservationists.

Firms were traditionally trusted to keep promises to clean up, Smith said. No enforceable conditions, requiring specific action by certain dates, were written into provincial project approvals.

2. I asked a question related to tailings ponds when we interviewed Environmental Commissioner Albert Renner. The transcript can be found here. He indicated seemed to think the situation was not too bad, and would be getting better. This is what he said (at 40:41):

Well, there’s no doubt that there is a degree of seepage that occurs around tailing ponds. Again, we’ve got old technology and new technology here. The one tailing pond that people like to talk about is the old, original one that was built 40 years ago that is all but retired. It will – I think next year, 2010, will see the retirement of that pond. There’s some seepage from that pond that has been identified.

Keep in mind that, that seepage is going straight down into a system that is relatively static. And there are monitoring stations that are surrounding that tailing pond and the area of the tailing pond that ensure that there is groundwater trans-ventilation – (inaudible, background noise) – that there is processed water that is being returned into the surface water in the Athabasca River.

The newer technology for tailing ponds is constructed in a way that there are a series of wells that are drilled around the tailing pond that constantly bring the water that is seeping out of the bottom of the well – pumping it back into the top. And so while there is water that is certainly, undoubtedly seeping into the ground itself, most of that water is recaptured by these siphoning wells and pumped back into the pond itself.

I think the exciting thing about tailing pond technology, though, is not the safety factor that is built into tailing ponds, but that I don’t see a long-term future for tailing ponds at all. The new technology that industry is moving towards is one in which we’ll see dry tailings employed, which means that the water that is being recycled is pulled out of the tailings at an earlier stage.

So instead of returning, essentially, water with a little bit of sand back into a tailing pond and allowing all of that to settle out, pumping the water off the top for recycling, they’ll actually introduce a centrifuge and treatment of that water prior to it going into a tailing pond. And so what goes back into the tailing pond is very thick mud instead of runny water.

Then the water is immediately put back into the system – reused on-site or the exciting part, I think, is that they may even be an opportunity for some of that water to find its way into some of the in situ operations that are now using saline water for steam generation. So the overall impact in it will be that dramatically reducing the size of tailing ponds, and in some cases, perhaps even eliminating the need for tailing ponds, even on mining operations.

Also, it’s important to note that a lot of the attraction of oil sands is focused on mining operations. Mineable oil sands constitutes only about 20 percent of the total reserve. The vast majority of the reserve is far too deep for mining. And that’s where the in situ operations are focused. The future of oil sands is not mining; the future of oil sands is in situ. And the in situ environmental footprint is significantly smaller than that of mining. And that’s where a lot of the exciting new progress is being made.

You don’t need tailing ponds if you’re running an in situ operation. In some cases, some of the advanced technology, you don’t even need water to extract in situ. So there’s some really exciting things going on in that area on the oil sands.

3. As I mentioned elsewhere on the thread, using centrifuging to remove water from the tailings ponds has the additional benefit of also producing some minerals (including possibly rare earth minerals) that can be sold and perhaps lead to a profit. The profit motive by itself may move things along fairly quickly.

4. There is active water monitoring being done by the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program. It issues reports every year. The recent report I reviewed seemed to show very favorable indications. The rivers of the area are already polluted, because they run through the oil sands area. The reports indicate that the pollution does not seem to be getting worse.

Gail -

I remain largely unpersuaded. As to your points:

1) New and improved regulations some 40 years after the start of operations is better late than never, but it is really closing the barn door after the horse ran out, and doesn't do much to address the problem of the existing ponds.

2) Commissioner Renner has clearly admitted that seepage is occurring. Though he says that there are some 'exciting' developments, they don't look all that exciting to me. (By the way, what exactly is 'groundwater trans-ventilation? A typo perhaps?) A system of interceptor wells around a leaking pond is hardly cutting-edge technology, no matter how you spin it. It is more of a band aid on a gaping chest wound. Plus some of these improvements such as centrifuging the tailings and only sending the concentrate to the ponds, do absolutely nothing to address the problem of the existing ponds.

3) This hype about recovering valuable minerals from the centrifuge concentrate is just more spin (pun). On a weight basis, the amount of valuable, economically recoverable minerals is probably next to nil. It will never take place. It if were so promising, why isn't it already being done?

4) No offense intended, but do you think you are really qualified to independently interpret the results of an aquatic monitoring program?

In closing, yes, there are improvements in the offing and a growing use of the in situ method will obviate the need for tailings ponds. But none of this addresses the problem that has already been created and is out there big as life, all 50 square miles of it.

My other issue is that I doubt that these ponds are ever going to be properly closed and sealed in an environmentally benign manner. You have often quite rightly expressed concerns about society's growing difficulty in being able to afford infrastructure upkeep and the like. Well, when thing get tough and we start having difficulty in affording routine road repair, what do you think the chances are of either the oil companies or the Canadian government spending umpteen billions of dollars to properly close 25 to 50 square miles of ponds? I don't think it's ever going to happen, in anything but a marginal piecemeal manner.

1. New tailing pond regulations. These seems to affect existing ponds as well as new ones. Here are some links about the new regulations:

Alberta issues tough directive for tailings ponds

New Oil Sands Tailings Requirements Increase Regulatory Scrutiny

New directive on tailings ponds sets the bar high for oilsands mining companies

Previously, if a company wasn’t meeting the goals it had set out in its application targets for reclamation, the ERCB had no ability to take enforcement action. Now it does.

The directive is part of a major upgrade of oilsands regulations over the past three years. There are two key targets. By Sept. 30, companies must file a plan with the ERCB on how they will comply with its requirements, including firm dates as to when they will reclaim their tailings ponds. They must also begin aggressively capturing more of the fine materials before these materials enter the tailings ponds. The directive requires companies to reduce fine particles in tailings by 50 per cent by 2013. In addition, the ponds must be trafficable (ready to be reclaimed) no longer than five years after they are no longer being used.

Promise of certainty

“It’s a twofold thing: less material going into the tailings pond in the first place, and setting firm, enforceable targets to reclaim the tailings ponds that already exist,” Sheremata says. “On Sept. 30, Albertans will have certainty on when oilsands tailings ponds are going to be reclaimed and how they are going to be reclaimed. They will know that if those targets aren’t met, companies will be facing enforcement action.”

2. Why do you think that the centrifuging wouldn't apply to existing ponds? The new regulations apply to existing ponds. It doesn't seem like it would be all that difficult to do to existing ponds. I had the distinct impression Syncrude was considering centrifuging as an option with ponds they want to retire.

3. The patent I ran across was dated March 12, 2009, so one can't expect a whole lot yet. I ran across the patent when I was googling something I didn't think was related. I pointed it out, since it looked interesting. I haven't heard mention of it elsewhere.

4. Regarding the RAMP reports, you can look at them too. They are written for "multi-stakeholders", so there are non-technical summaries at the beginning. That is what I read.

Regarding your concern about the tailings ponds not being closed and properly sealed--I would feel much better about this, if our world financial system weren't in such dire straights. The collapse of the financial system could leave a lot of things unremediated--including all a lot of nuclear waste and mining waste of different types around the world. I could envision a scenario in which the tailing ponds are not able to be remediated, because the owners go bankrupt, and the state of Alberta is not able to do enough to fix the tailings pond. I don't know what more can be done, though, than the what the new regulations seem to be trying to do.

I think you're missing the point that the tailings ponds are in the oil sands. The ground around them was completely saturated with oil millions of years before the tailings ponds were built. The oil sands are leaking oil into the groundwater and rivers. Always have and always will. The riverbanks are black with oil because that's how they always were.

The tailings ponds are actually filled with a mixture of slightly oily silt (from which most of the oil has been removed) and water. They are there because the silt is so fine it takes a very long time to settle out.

The problem with the ponds is not so much the oily waste (the whole area is oily waste) but the water. They don't want to dispose of it until the silt settles out. Until that happens they have an enormous silty water storage problem. After it happens, they'll probably inject the water into some deep underground formation, cover the pond with topsoil, plant grass, bring in buffalo, and set up picnic tables.

It's not nearly as bad as the old Anaconda copper mine in Butte, Montana, which filled up with a mixture of sulfuric acid and arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc, and other heavy metals after it was abandoned. And, it is right in the city of Butte, looming over the city center. Now, that one is a classic. You should go and see it.

RockyMtnGuy -

Me again!

I fully understand that the tailings ponds are in the same local as the oil sand deposits. And I fully understand that there has been slow leaching of various chemical constituents from the deposits for eons.

However, to truly assess the environmental impact of those tailings ponds one must determine the additional pollutant loading resulting from pond seepage and to the compare that to what is occurring naturally. One must also examine the hydrogeology of the area to determine what is hydraulically connected to what.

You must also keep in mind that the undisturbed compacted oil sand deposits come in contact with water through natural percolation of precipitation down into the soil. However, a system of tailings ponds some 50 square miles in area is a whole different animal. First, the chemical constituents in the tailingss have been made far more mobile by virtue of the fact that the material has been processed and come in vigorous contact with water through the various mixing and transport steps. In other words, its been stirred up. Second, and this is the most important, A tailings pond that is say 15 to 20 feet deep is going to exert a considerable hydraulic gradient and thus accelerate the migration of the contents of the pond into the underlying groundwater regime at a rate many times greater than that caused by natural percolation. To the extent that the groundwater is in hydraulic communication with the river, that migration could very well eventually reach the river and make the existing contamination even worse. As contaminated groundwater typically moves very slowly, it often becomes the gift that keeps on giving.

Again, one must compare magnitudes, and I have not seen enough information presented here to do that.

For details you can look on the Alberta Government Environment site at:

As they note, the fine silt from the slurry acts to seal the tailings ponds against leakage. All the ponds are constructed with groundwater seepage-capture facilities, and are closely monitored. They have thousands of monitoring stations. They have been monitoring since the 1960s, and have detected no leakage into the Athabasca River to date.

The idea that nobody is regulating these ponds is a myth perpetrated by some of the pseudo-environmental groups in the U.S. that have been popping up since the oil sands came on to the public radar. In fact, this industry is very heavily regulated and monitored.

The U.S. groups have been extrapolating from some old environmental indiscretions that happened in the U.S. and assuming that Canada is regulated the same way as the U.S used to be. This is far from the truth.

With regard to the environmental aspects of the Oil Sands I have one element that seems to have been overlooked and deserves attention

The PetroBank Company has developed a fire flooding technique for quite efficint harvesting of the insitu bitumen (up to 70%) with minimal use of water and natural gas.It is called the THAI process.

Since the majority of this resource is below the economic threshhold of surface mining this can only be viewed as very good news. As one of the writers/ and witnesses of the NEPA with Chairman John Dingel back in 1969 I have and have maintained a reasonably high environmental snesitivity so I greet this new technology with some enthusiasm

For purposes of disclosure I and my family are hevy investors in the formentioned company. It's web site under the title of "Heavy Oil" is worth reviewing.

I think there are a number of techniques that look promising. THAI is just one of them. THAI is not helpful from a CO2 basis, but might be on a cost of production basis. It is possible that things may change fairly significantly in the next few years.

Other techniques which show promise include Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), Vapor Extraction Process (VAPEX), (similar to SAGD with a solvent) and electric induction technology.

The SAGD process uses a great deal of water and natural gas for it's steam production and shows yield in the 15 % level of oil in place unlike the 70%+ of THAI, The VAPEX technology has a problem of gasous hydrocarbon leakage which albeit not severe eoes raise the costs and spills into the atmosphere. It's recovey facrors are as yet unknown.

As to the CO2 issue with the THAI process it is in part the co2 that helps mobilize the bitumen well underground. How much of this is lost in the process to the atmosphere is in my knowledge unreported but a good deal does remain in the formation at depth.

The electric induction technology was investigate back in the days of Colorado shale mania and the elelctric generation by products and cost were substantial according to the investigator Ernie Blaise of DOE and DARPA. Now dedicated nuclear reactors might lessen this problem but I would rather see any surplus nuclear electric power/steam used for other purposes.

My own thinking is that high energy acoustic stimulation might have some potential as the material may be thixotropic and receptive to specific frequencies. It would of course likely sterilize the formation (no worse than fire flooding) but might leak to kill a lot of biota which are necessary for a healthy soil.

At least the historic suggestion of a "Gas Buggy" exercise has been abandoned. Who need hot oil.

I still like THAI for it's in process upgrading,low energy (natural gas usage), minimal surface impact, low water use, and of couse the promise of superb yield of oil in place. Hey, it's a open question but THAI certainly could prove a step change breakthrough and dominant technology down the road.

Be well- we will soon see as PetroBank is moving very quickly and chould well leave Nexen in the dust. Difinitive results before 2010 we are told.

Be well Gail and I hope you enjoyed your trip.

I talked about the Surmont SAGD facility in Part ! of my Oil Sands series. They were claiming a 60% extraction level--higher in the places they actually heated. They were trying to get the heat more uniform to melt more.

I wrote a post about THAI about two years ago. It seems like Petrobank has demoted THAI in what it is talking about on its web site. One wonders if things aren't going so well--or maybe it is just that development time is normally very long.

Yes, that's true. The idea that SAGD recovers only 15% of the OOIP is somewhat obsolete. With a lot of fine-tuning, companies are claiming recovery rates of 60%, and in some cases up to 80% of the OOIP. It's an extremely effective process in the oil sands.

The implication of that is that the reserve estimates of 175 billion barrels need to be doubled or tripled. So far this is an "off the record" sort of estimate, mentioned more by geologists around bars more than executives around boardrooms.

It's an academic sort of estimate, since they can't build the facilities to produce that much oil in this century. The scale of the facilities would absolutely scare the wits out of people, and they're already upset about the size of things in the oil sands.

No, I haven't heard much about THAI recently, either. Based on my experience (I was involved in a similar project years ago), these fire-flood techniques don't work nearly as well as you would expect.

But why would THAI take a long time? Doesn't it basically consist of just ('just'!) drilling two wells, one of them a horizontal?
And not even any bother of gas/liquid exploding out.
Maybe instead doubts are justified that it seemed too simple to manage an invisible underground fire from those two wells. And what seems promising in location A then proves less hot in location B and so on.