Alberta's tar sand wastelands

From ToxicLeaks

Alberta is one of the richest areas for fossil fuels these days and oil companies like Syncrude and Royal Dutch Shell are making huge profits by drilling its tar sands. But it's also one of the place where fossil fuels have had the worst effect on the environment and on the people living there. This is clear when you look at the First Nations, the Canadian Indians that live in the area, and how their way of life as been compromised as the ecosystem their life was based upon was destroyed by fossil fuels projects.

The Alberta tar sands mining has destroyed the forests[edit | edit source]

The story of the First Nations in Alberta and the oil industry is basically the story of sacrifice. Whereas the indigenous residents used to live off the land, namely by selling fur, they had to change their lifestyle when the animals protection groups started campaigning against the trapping industry. And the only choice they had was oil. Many of them now work in the oil industry, but the price has been terrible. Acres of boreal forest and muskeg have been destroyed to drill for oil. Indeed part of the oil in the Albertan soil can only be reached by open-pit mining which requires bulldozing the entire area that is mined. Apart from the mines, huge refineries have been built, with 18-wheelers coming and going on wide highways. The oil drilling has therefore caused deforestation but also pollution of neighboring areas. There have been many dramatic leaks into Athabasca river, for instance in 1997, tailing ponds of Suncor mines leaked thousands of cubic meters of toxic water into the River on a daily basis. The First Nations were forced to choose the fights they fight against oil power, as they don't have the resources to oppose every project. Therefore they focus on the most destructive ones, like the new open pit mine than has been announced by Tech Resources and that will discussed in 2016.

Transportation of tar sands oil is highly hazardous and results in disastrous spills[edit | edit source]

If you fought the extraction of tar sand oil was environmental torture, wait until you hear about its transportation. Tar sand oil isn't liquid like conventional oil, what comes out of the pits is a thick mixture called "dilbit," which is made of tar-like oil, "processed" water filled with chemicals, sand and natural-gas condensates. This mixture is highly acidic, corrosive and can be unstable, it is therefore even more dangerous to transport than conventional oil. As Tony Boschmann, environmental consultation manager for the Fort mcMurray First Nation points out, dilbit is extremely difficult to clean up in the case of a spill. And spills happen all the time. For instance, in July 2015, a pipeline owned by the Chinese company Nexen burst and let 31,500 barrels of dilbit flow into the musket and wetlands. When Boschmann went to assess the damage made by the spill, he saw that it had created a huge "mass of tar", that covered an area of 980 by 230 feet and 8 to 12 inches deep. Moreover, dilbit behaves differently from conventional oil. Whereas oil floats on top of water or stays at the surface of the ground, dilbit sinks into the ground and contaminates it.

According to Boschmann, the oil industry "hasn't provided a good case for how to clean [bitumen] up." This is yet another clear sign that oil companies like Syncrude or Shell don't care about preserving the environment but are only interested in the profit they can reap and lowering costs to a minimum, even if that means enhancing risks for the environment and the people that live around the tar sand extraction sites.

Not only tar sands pollute the environment, they use up a huge amount of water[edit | edit source]

The First Nations in Alberta used to base a big part of their lives of the rivers and namely Athabasca river. The river was a waterway they used for transportation, but also a source of life, that provided water of course but also fish and where they could hunt beavers with beaver traps. But that was before corporations decided Alberta's environment has to be devoured to produce oil income. The oil industry has polluted the water with oil production byproducts but has also drained the rivers to get ahold of water for the oil extraction and processing. A report made in 2006 by the Pembina Institute underlines the oil industry's appetite for Athabasca river's water : "To produce one cubic metre (m3) of synthetic crude oil (SCO) (upgraded bitumen) in a mining operation requires about 2–4.5 m3 of water (net figures). Approved oil sands mining operations are currently licensed to divert 359 million m3 from the Athabasca River, or more than twice the volume of water required to meet the annual municipal needs of the City of Calgary." The result is that Alberta is being drained dry by the oil industry. "There's no more ground water," says James Woodward, a resident of the Fort McMurray area. "You can see empty beaver houses, empty ponds everywhere that used to have a lot of water." Jean L'Hommecourt, another resident adds : "Now the river is very low. It's hard to navigate - and dangerous." Moreover, the oil companies have diverted water from underground water tables and left them at an all-time low. The few indigenous residents that try to maintain their traditional lifestyle and eat what they fish, hunt or the berries they forage must drive long hours to find food nowadays, because the ecosystem has been completely unbalanced by the careless actions of oil companies.

A killing ground for the wildlife[edit | edit source]

These environmental disruptions and pollutions have had a very negative effect on the wildlife and biodiversity of Alberta. The woodland Caribou have suffered greatly from the destruction of Alberta's original ecosystem. They have been pushed out of the habitat they usually come to feed in at the time of year when they need it the most. This is a direct threat to the preservation of the Caribou population as they are weaker against predators such as wolves that are proliferating. The government's response has been to gun down the wolves. This is clearly a false solution and does not address the real issue. The oil industry has also caused the death of numerous birds, especially migrating birds that stop to rest near water that has been contaminated by oil extraction byproducts or even by crude oil. A report by the the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that around 166 million birds will die because of tar sands in Alberta during the next 50 years if this activity is not stopped. But what are a few ducks compared to the $ billions in profit Shell and Syncrude rake in ?

One last gruesome example of the environmental crimes of oil companies is the appearance of deformed fish species in the rivers where the oil industries have dumped their byproducts and waste. Because the chemical composition of the water was altered, fish with strange mutations, tumors or deformations have been found by the residents, who are quite rightly worried about the risks induced by eating this fish !

The health impacts of the First Nations[edit | edit source]

As one can expect, this widespread pollution and disruption of the ecosystem has dire consequences on the health of the people that live in the area, namely the First Nations. Reports have shown that the people living close to oil sands were more prone to developing cancers and other illnesses. For instance in Fort Chipewayan, a report found that : "The increased number of cases of biliary tract cancers, cancers in the blood and lymphatic system and cancers of unknown primary seen in the most recent six years (2001-2006) compared to the years 1995-2000 of the investigation warrant closer monitoring of cancer occurrences in Fort Chipewyan in the coming years". While the oil extraction and subsequent pollution of the environment is clearly one of the main factors of this abnormal rate, other factors could be at play like uranium mining. Furthermore, many residents of the Fort McMurray area have decided to buy water from other states because the local water has caused burns and lesions, even though it was processed and cleaned in a water treatment plant. This is again a clear sign of the extent of the pollution caused by corporate greed and their callousness to the pain and suffering of the people they find in their way.

Tar sands is dramatically increasing global warming[edit | edit source]

On top of all the negative local impacts, tar sand extraction is extremely polluting for the environment and represents a very serious threat to the attempts to mitigate global warming. Indeed, bitumen needs a lot of processing before it can be used as fuel and therefore oil companies have to use energy to do that. So tar sand oil is not only a fossil fuel, but in order to extract it, you actually need to burn more fossil fuel. The oil companies use natural gas, and a lot of it : in 2007, they burned 1 billion cubic feet of gas every day, which amounts to around 40 % of Alberta's total natural gas consumption and estimates expect that it will use 1.8 billion cubic feet in 2020. This explains why tar sand oil consumption emits "about 5 percent to 15 percent more carbon dioxide, over the "well-to-wheels" lifetime analysis of the fuel, than average crude oil" according to a 2009 study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates. This makes total sense. When you burn tar sand oil, you already cause heavy CO² emissions, but you also have to take into account the fuel used to produce the oil, and this makes the bill twice as big for the atmosphere. But corporations don't really care that tar sand oil is even worse than conventional oil when it comes to stopping CO² emissions and global warming. And the result for Canada is that the country is reneging on the promises it made at the Kyoto Conference in 1997. Canada had pledged to cut its emissions by 6% from 1990 levels, by 2012. Instead, emissions have risen by 24 % and Canada took the incredibly selfish decision of pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty in 2012.

The environment is sacrificed by corporate and political greed[edit | edit source]

The conclusion here is cristal clear, both big corporations and the Canadian politicians have decided to sacrifice the environment and the welfare of the people for profit. And these environmental impacts are far from over as Alberta holds the third biggest reserves of oil in the world, they amount to around 175 billion barrels. That's why corporate greed has disregarded every ecological impact and has ruthlessly drilled Alberta's soil, whatever the environmental cost. It has a close ally in politicians. The former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, declared in 2006 that the tar sand projects of Alberta were like the Great Wall in China, « only bigger ». Well if he referred to the thousands of Chinese peasants that were worked to death to build the wall, the comparison may be accurate. However, what this statement really illustrates if that politicians are accomplices of the oil industry and it's all the more criminal that their job is to protect the Canadian people and its land, and all they do instead is helping corporations destroy them.