Photo from a tar sands protest action in Calgary, January 2008 by Steve Loo via flickr.
We’ve written so many times about the unmitigated environmental disaster that is tapping unconventional sources of oil, such as Canadian tar sands and US oil shales, that the subject may be old hat to many TreeHugger readers. That said, a new report from WWF-UK has summed up just how bad the environmental impact of these projects actually is, that it’s worth passing on.
“Unconventional Oil: Scraping the bottom of the barrel?” breaks down the environmental impacts into four areas: Climate Change, Boreal Forest, Water Intensity and Toxic Waste, and Communities. Here are the relevant statistics:
In terms of energy intensity, unconventional fossil fuels are much more energy intensive to produce and consequently produces far more carbon emissions: Tar Sand extraction produces three times the emissions of conventional oil, while Oil Shale produces eight times the emissions.
Based on current technology, there are about 1,115 billion barrels of unconventional oil reserves in North America. If all of these were exploited the resultant emissions would be 980 giga-tonnes of CO2, with the corresponding increase in atmospheric CO2 levels of 49-65ppm. Utilizing these reserves would push atmospheric CO2 levels past the 450 ppm levels which scientists say is the threshold above which we risk a new global extinction event.
The region of Alberta in which the tar sands are located is 140,000 square kilometers of boreal forest. Though tar sands operations are required by law to return the areas in which they mine to the condition in which they found them, according to the report, “Most companies admit it is impossible to artificially return boreal forest to the same condition as they found it; instead reclaimed land will have much lower levels of carbon density and biodiversity than previously existed.”
Water Intensity and Toxic Waste
Tar Sands require an average of three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. Most of this water comes from the Athabasca River, which has had its average summer flow decline 29% between 1970 and 2005. Only 5-10% of water taken from the river is returned to it, as it is too toxic. The toxic water is kept in tailing ponds, up to 50 square kilometers in size, which it is unlikely will ever be able to be reclaimed and made non-toxic.
Oil Shale production is even more intense in terms of water usage, requiring between two and five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. This increase in water usage would occur in an area of the United States which the US Department of the Interior says has been experiencing a drought for the past eight years.
First Nations communities in Alberta have raised concern about water quality downstream from oil sands operations, and about toxin levels in fish. Reports of unusual incidences of cancer have been reported in some communities and are now under investigation. The Assembly of First Nations Treaty Chiefs has called for a full moratorium on oil sands development.
Carbon Capture potential shouldn’t lock us into a carbon intensive future
James Leaton, senior policy officer at WWF-UK:
Companies and investors claim to recognize the need to tackle climate change and support international efforts such as Kyoto. In oil sands we have an activity that is going against this imperative…so it is time for investors to challenge this strategy.Technologies which could potentially mitigate the environment impacts of these projects, such as carbon capture and storage, as still too far away from being a viable solution on a large scale. The scope for development of CCS must not lock us in to a carbon intensive future, when it is clear that the developed world needs to start cutting emissions now.
A Global Halt to New Unconventional Oil Development Called For
Because of these factors, WWF is calling for a global halt to licensing of new unconventional oil sands projects. Additionally, it is calling for legislation to prohibit the sale of fuels which have higher emissions that regular oil.
Although that would obviously include oil shale and tar sands, I wonder if biofuels produced in certain conditions, such as in plantations cleared from Southeast Asian rainforest, which have higher lifecycle emissions than fossil fuels would also be included?
In case you missed it: Under a new Bush Administration proposal, oil shale production would be, essentially, subsidized so that more of the climate change increasing, water toxifying, energy intensive stuff can be extracted.