The Tar Sands are one of the most environmentally and socially destructive projects on the face of the planet. From whatever way you look at them they only conclusion is that they need to be stopped. Here are just some of the issues:
- Tar Sands and Global Warming
- Tar Sands and Water
- Tar Sands and Health
- Tar Sands and the Boreal
- Tar Sands and Social Costs
Tar sands and Global Warming
Global warming is a worldwide concern considered one of the greatest threats facing our planet today. It will have detrimental impacts on human health, wildlife, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and our economy that is being driven by human activity. A majority of the world’s scientists have said that in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 based on 1990 levels and 80-90% by 2050 and we need to start acting NOW!
Despite this warning, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and Canada and the Tar Sands are literally driving us in the wrong direction.
• Tar sands development is the single largest contributor, and fastest growing source of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions
• Due to the tar sands, Alberta is ranked as the industrial pollution capital of Canada
• The tar sands can single handedly prevent Canada from meeting it’s international obligations to reduce greenhouse gases. The tar sands will soon match the carbon dioxide emissions of the Czech Republic, double the emissions of Peru, triple the emissions of Qatar and ten times as much as Costa Rica.
• By 2020, the tar sands plants are expected to produce emissions equivalent to more than 141 million tonnes of CO2 per year- that’s more than double the emissions of ALL of the cars and trucks in Canada.
• Production of tar sands oil currently releases 3-5 times more GHG emissions than from conventional sources. Conventional oil produces an average of 28.6 kg of carbon dioxide per barrel of oil, while tar sands oil produces a whopping 85.5 kg (according to the Pembina Institute). The National Energy Board (NEB) estimates the amount to be even higher, at about 125 kg of carbon dioxide released for every barrel of oil.
• To produce one barrel of oil, 4 tonnes of material are mined, 2-5 barrels of water are used to extract the bitumen, and enough natural gas to heat 1.5 homes for a day is used.
Conservative Plan and Climate Change:
• The Conservative federal governments released their emissions plan and targets on April 26. The plan uses target levels for reductions from the year 2006 instead of the internationally recognized baseline of 1990 levels. The plan calls for a reduction by 20% below 2006 levels in emissions by 2020, which would mean an increase of 2% of 1990 levels.
• The plan calls for intensity based targets for the tar sands industry. This means that emissions have to be reduced per barrel, but OVERALL emissions of the industry are allowed to grow as industry increases output.
• As production of oil from the tar sands will be an estimated four times higher in 2020 than in 2005, even if intensity based targets are met, emissions will still increase three fold over that period.
• New tar sands operations have also been given a three-year free ride by the Federal government before they need to reduce emissions.
• If the fossil fuel industry is allowed to proceed with its current plans, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada will grow to 827 million tonnes in 2010. This would be 44% beyond what Canada is permitted under the Kyoto Protocol and a far cry from the 60-to 80% reduction that scientist say is essential to stabilize the climate. Not only are there the direct emissions related to the extraction processes, but the use of dwindling conventional natural gas supplies to fire the tar sands extraction is hastening the return to coal for domestic heating and power generation.
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Tar sands operations require the use of vast quantities of water, which become contaminated and must be stored in huge tailing ponds. This both depletes local water reserves and threatens to pollute the environment and nearby communities.
Toxic Tailings Ponds
During the process of separating bitumen from the tar sands, large amounts of water are mixed in with the sand, and once the oil has been removed, the leftover mixture of water, sand, clay and residual bitumen – known as tailings – has to be stored in a stable location so that the solution can settle and separate. The storage facilities are known as tailings ponds. Because each cubic metre of bitumen extracted results in three to five cubic metres of tailings that need to be stored, the tailings ponds are so enormous they can be seen by the naked eye from outer space. Other “wastewater” is also stored in human-made holding lagoons such as sewage, water used for cooling, and water that has come into contact with coke, asphaltenes, sulphur, or heavy metals. This tactic is supposed to prevent the contamination of groundwater and river systems, but there is concern that this is not working properly.
What is so toxic about these ponds?
In most mining operations, harsh chemicals are needed to separate the minerals from the sand or rock that they are embedded in. For example, in gold or copper mining, arsenic and cyanide are often used, so tailings in those operations are extremely poisonous. In the tar sands, naphtha and paraffin are used, but they are supposed to be separated from the water before it is pumped into the tailings pond.
However, the byproducts of the petroleum itself are dangerous and known to kill the microorganisms which would ordinarily be present in a river or natural wetlands. Scientists state that the most dangerous contaminant in tar sands tailings water is naphthenic acid, a natural constituent of petroleum that becomes dissolved and concentrated in the hot water used to process the tar sands. Repeated exposure to naphthenic acid can have adverse health effects upon mammals, causing liver problems and brain hemorrhaging, and higher concentrations lead to more serious effects. Another component of the tailings is alkyl-substituted polyaromatic hydrocarbon, which causes deformities and even death to birds exposed to it.
Besides the toxic chemicals that are contained within the tailings, the water in these storage facilities attracts methanogenic bacteria, which produce methane, a greenhouse gas. The methane bubbles change the composition of the tailings pond and make some of the other dangerous toxins in the water more concentrated.
The oil companies’ response to these dangers is to fire airguns around the tailings ponds to prevent any birds and animals from coming near it. A more serious risk is that these ponds are leaking into the groundwater in the area, and into the Athabasca River. Another fear is that companies will stop operating in the area (if the oil runs out, or if profit margins go down), and stop maintaining the facilities.
Naphthenic acids are persistent and hard to disperse from the environment. They are released in high concentrations from tar sands projects, so people who live downstream have serious fears about contaminated water, fish and wildlife. Mercury contamination is another risk, because when the wetlands which originally covered the tar sands are drained, high concentrations of mercury can be released into the surrounding water bodies.
Recently, people living in Fort Chipewyan (a First Nations community downstream from the tar sands projects) began to publicise their concerns about the effects of water pollution on their health. Since tar sands development has been accelerating over the past few years, they have noticed greater incidences of cancer and diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis in their community.
• The tar sands are the largest user of groundwater in Alberta
• Tar sands development requires an enormous amount of water – current projects remove about 349 million m3 of water from the Athabasca River each year, equivalent to about 140,000 swimming pools or twice the amount of water the City of Calgary uses per year
• Tar sands’ water allocations accounts for 65% of the water withdrawals from the Athabasca River every year. These water use requirements are resulting in lower water levels in freshwater aquifers, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands.
• It takes three to five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil.
• For In Situ extraction alone, 24,000 m3 of water will be needed DAILY for steam production and processing.
Tar sands and health:
The main health concerns related to the tar sands are associated with air and water pollution. In addition to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, tar sands operations also emit other substances into the atmosphere, most notably nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.
Breathing in nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide often leads to respiratory problems, and particulate matter has been linked to diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and various forms of heart disease. Volatile organic compounds can cause even more serious problems, from cancer to brain damage.
The presence of toxic chemicals or heavy metals in lakes and rivers affects drinking water, as well as the health of animals and fish that drink from the water, or live in it. When human beings eat the animals or fish they are also eating the chemicals consumed by the animal. There have been reports of mutations in animals and fish in ecosystems downstream from tar sands projects, and people who live in the area are very concerned that increased health problems may be linked to contaminated food and water sources.
• Communities downstream from the tar sands are experiencing cancer rates far higher than can be explained by change. Leukemia, lymphoma, lupus and rare forms of cancer have all increasing in recent years in the population that is for the most part made up of Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations.
• Fish in Lake Athabasca in the last five or six years with great have been found with lumps on them, humpbacks, and crooked tails
• Government science is not subject to peer review, a process whereby in any other field would be deemed suspicious and unprofessional
• Heavy metal pollution is a growing concern for communities located near tar sands operations and downstream from development- causing health problems for people and wildlife.
• Costs to human health and ecosystems are not factored into the costs of tar sands projects.
The Tar Sands and the Boreal Forest
4.3 million hectares of the Boreal Forest cover the tar sands, and these are being clearcut so that oil companies can access the tar underneath. The Boreal Forest has been referred to as the lungs of our planet, and tar sands operations threaten to destroy an area the size of Florida.
The Boreal Forest is a highly complex ecosystem that supports a vast array of plants and wildlife including grizzly bears, wolverine, woodland caribou and over a billion birds. It represents more than 25% of all ancient forests left on the planet and is a source of clean water for millions of Canadians. The Boreal Forest is home to hundreds of First Nations communities that depend on the forest for their sustenance, jobs and traditional activities. Many of the areas under development in the Boreal Forest are subject to land claims and disputes.
The Boreal Forest also has particular value as a storehouse of carbon, holding more than 47 billion tonnes in its trees and soils. When the forest is cut down and soils are disturbed by heavy machinery, carbon from this storehouse is released into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. Unfortunately unsustainable development, including the tar sands, is taking its toll on the Boreal Forest. For example, woodland caribou, a species threatened with extinction, have seriously declined in Alberta as a result of the loss of their habitat in the Boreal Forest.
Tar sands and Social Costs:
It is often argued that the social and economic benefits of tar sands activities outweigh the environmental harm they cause. This is clearly not the case in Alberta. The pace of tar sands development has exceeded the ability of anyone to deal with the social consequences.
Economically, Albertans are finding times tougher than ever. Inflation and consumer prices in Calgary and Edmonton are rising exponentially. Basic needs like housing are becoming unaffordable as demand outstrips supply. Services by skilled tradespeople (mechanics, plumbers, etc.) are expensive and hard to find because so many skilled workers are working on tar sands projects. Access to health care is becoming more and more difficult. Even traffic is getting worse – commute times are longer, accident rates are higher, and because most of the oil from the tar sands goes to the United States, even the price of gas is high!
Workers working in the tar sands are seeing fat paycheques, but there are enormous downsides: long hours, abusive situations, bad accommodation, remote locations, and a lack of job security are common complaints. Worker safety is another problem as drilling rigs and mine sites are some of the most dangerous work environments, and Alberta’s industrial accident rate increased by 17% between 2004 and 2006.
Communities feel they are being destroyed by the economic changes. Substance abuse, gambling and family violence has increased in towns near tar sands projects, and as thousands of workers are brought in by oil companies, towns in Northern Alberta face housing crunches and much higher costs. Homelessness in Edmonton increased by 19% in 2006 as there is not enough infrastructure or social services in Alberta to accommodate the increased population.
• Fort McMurray is currently deficient in 70 out of 72 quality-of-life indicators developed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, including a shortage of affordable housing (or simply access to any housing) and wait lists to see doctors
• Fort McMurray currently has the highest suicide rate in the country for men age 18-24.