CANADIAN MINING PERSPECTIVES: Oil sands tarred with environmentalists’ brush

In the last couple of weeks environmentalists have loudly condemned Canada's oil sands producers. They call the ind...
In the last couple of weeks environmentalists have loudly condemned Canada's oil sands producers. They call the industry dirty, polluting and a potential cause of increasingly foul emissions from U.S. refineries. These loudmouths have even reverted to the name "tar sands" lest anyone think "oil sands" is more benign.

At the centre of the uproar is a report, "Tar Sands: Feeding U.S. Refinery Expansions with Dirty Fuel" released by the ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY PROJECT ( of Washington, D.C., and ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE CANADA ( of Toronto.

The report says that refineries in the United States are proposing expansions of 1.6 million bbl/d, two-thirds of which will be fed from "heavier, dirtier crude oil" from Canadian oil sands. It goes on to state that another 800,000 bbl/d of existing capacity will be converted to processing oil sands oil. The shift towards using feed from Canadian oil sands represents a volume equal to building sixteen new refineries.

Oh, doom and gloom, wail the authors of the report.

"Refining the extra heavy sour crude oil extracted from tar sands would result in higher air emissions of harmful pollutants such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), sulphuric acid mist, and nitrogen oxides (NOX), as well as toxic metals such as lead and nickel compounds," they point out.

The sky may not be falling, but the environmental wasteland created by the mining operations themselves is rising up to meet us.

"The consequences of tar sand oil extraction include the clear-cutting and strip-mining of huge portions of intact boreal forest ecosystem, the creation of vast unreclaimable toxic lakes of wastewater, the consumption of enormous amounts of water and energy, and the production of three times more greenhouse gas as extracting conventional crude oil."

CMJ readers know it will take more than biased reports to bring the Canadian oil sands industry to its knees. But let us remind those who don't know and those who might have forgotten of a few facts.

The loudest complainers fail to mention that about 65% of the oil sands output is upgraded to synthetic crude oil (SCO) in Alberta. That's the figure from the GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA. The balance is shipped as diluted bitumen. The established producers SYNCRUDE, SUNCOR and Shell-led ALBIAN SANDS - all upgrade on their sites, which allows them to sell a premium product at the highest price. So the environmentalists should not be tarring the entire industry with the same brush.

Neither do the nay-sayers pay any attention to the tremendous strides the oil sands producers are making in water conservation, mine rehabilitation and energy savings. The advent of hydrotransport is a boom for saving water and energy. Mined out areas are always being reclaimed, so that wildlife can resume using the land. Slimes in the tailings ponds remain a problem, but after decades of searching there may be a solution on the horizon.

And if the United States doesn't want a first class SCO product from its nearest neighbour, Canadians can use it or sell it elsewhere in the world.


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