The impact of tar sands

Environmentalists have won a temporary victory in their campaign to keep oil companies out of the Beaufort Sea but they are still struggling to protect Canada's Arctic mainland. One such risk emanates from a region that lies south of the Arctic Circle, close to Lake Athabasca in Alberta.

The controversy surrounds a particular type of oil - dense, sticky and mixed with bitumen, sand and clay - that is usually known as tar sands. The Athabasca tar sands deposits are thought to be vast, containing around 175 billion barrels of oil, and not surprisingly their discovery has lured international energy companies such as Shell, which has already invested billions of dollars in extracting them.7 'The deposits are huge, potentially even greater than in Saudi Arabia (and) the time is right to exploit them', as Clive Mather, chief executive of Shell Canada, has said.8 Shell and its partners are already extracting about 150,000 barrels of oil a day and are aiming to expand this output fivefold, while some other companies, such as Suncor and Syncrude, have also entertained ambitions to drastically step up their own involvement in the project. These plans had been put on hold in the spring of 2009, when the profitability of the operations was slashed by the crash in the oil price, but are still likely to resume when economic conditions recover.

The trouble is that these oil deposits can only be lifted if they are dug right out, destroying whatever lies on top. 'Tar sands are the worst kind of source for oil', says James Leaton, a policy adviser on gas and oil for the WWF. 'Extracting oil takes huge amounts of energy and devastates the local environment by destroying the forest and polluting rivers, lakes and the air.'9 In time, the technology will doubtlessly be developed to avoid this environmental slaughter, but that could be years or even decades away. Until that happens around six barrels of waste are produced for every barrel of oil that is extracted from tar sands, and these wastes, together with a flow of water, sand, fine clay and residual bitumen, are usually stored in vast reservoirs that are dug out of the surrounding area.

The huge environmental impact of tar sands mining operations inevitably affects a very wide area, and many campaigners argue that it is already having a serious impact on rivers and wildlife in the Arctic region and elsewhere. If rivers and waterways in Alberta are contaminated and polluted, they claim, the fallout is felt much further away. As one Canadian pressure group, Environmental Defence, has pointed out, 'all Canadians are impacted by the tar sands, no matter where they live. If you live downstream, your water is being polluted and your fish and wildlife may be dangerous to eat'.10 But there is one respect in which Alberta's oil sands promise to adversely affect Canada's Arctic much more than any other region. This concerns an issue that has become hotly and bitterly contested in Canada and beyond: the construction of a pipeline that would run all the way from the Mackenzie Basin in the far north to Athabasca in the south.

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