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Environment, Economics, Tar Sands, Ocean Fertilization, and Canada’s Muddled Policy

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It’s getting harder and harder to follow the logic of the Canadian government’s policies.  I fear that Harper, Flaherty and Kent may all be operating in short-term, knee-jerk, respond-to-every-news-bite mode, rather than putting forth a long-term, dependable set of policies to run our country.  Just months ago they were shouting from the rooftops that they were bringing sound fiscal policy to the country, but then they also claimed they would bring openness, democracy, and ethical standards above reproach.  Maybe I should be less surprised that their fiscal story seems to be unraveling?

Still the recent changes in direction have been particularly abrupt.  Hard on the heels of a glowing Conference Board of Canada description of the enormous benefits to Canada of a rapidly growing tar sands oil industry the government is warning that economic factors outside Canada are likely to curtail this engine of our future prosperity, and acknowledging that its own scientists have new evidence of significant water pollution in the Athabasca watershed.  We are also being warned to tighten our belts because bad times are coming, just weeks after OECD predicted, to our government’s proud self-congratulation, that Canada will lead all OECD countries over the next decade or so.  Suddenly, the pipelines that simply had to be approved over the protests of leftist, traitorous, foreign-influenced environmentalists seem like they may not be needed after all, because the oil is becoming uneconomic.

Doing “science” off Haida Gwai following the great ocean fertilization scam.  Photo © Vancouver Sun

Meanwhile on a separate front, Canada’s Minister of Environment, Peter Kent, has referred to the rogue ocean fertilization scam perpetrated off Haida Gwai last summer as … a “demonstration of rogue science” that was not approved by the government, and has vowed that anyone who violates environmental laws shall be prosecuted to the full extent.  Environment Canada continues to investigate the event.  Supporting this forthright stand, Canada’s representatives at the meeting of the London Convention were actively supportive of the “statement of grave concern” signed by all 87 countries present and released at the close of the IMO meeting which explicitly criticized the venture, and reiterated that ocean fertilization is prohibited unless for legitimate scientific purposes.  The statement also noted that the parties to the Convention will work toward creating an effective system of control and regulation for ocean fertilization and other activities that have the potential to cause harm to the marine environment.  Taken together, these several glimpses of the Canadian government’s thinking are encouraging, except for the nagging feeling that where they have zigged, they may, next week, zag, and we’ll be back to being told that tar sands are the key to our future and that environmental science is no longer needed.  For now I will cling to the hope that Environment Canada’s investigation will actually become public and will reveal no government collusion, but let’s delve more deeply into the tar sands mess.

The sheer beauty of tar sands oil development Photo © Todd Korol/Reuters, via Calgary Herald

The new data on water pollution were reported by Environment Canada scientists, Jane Kirk, Derek Muir and colleagues at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), held in Long Beach CA, November 11-15.  It would have been nice to see a press release from Environment Canada or some information about this research on that department’s website, but that level of transparency has not yet been reached by our government.  Instead, one has to look to the press, or to the abstracts of the talks presented, which can be downloaded from the SETAC website.  Altogether, Kirk and Muir contributed to six oral presentations (talks, to the uninitiated) and three posters (posters full of science, usually in print almost too small to read, with the author standing there ready to discuss the work) – four of the talks and one of the posters concerned the tar sands.

Specifically, Kirk and her colleagues have confirmed and extended the work reported last year by David Schindler and colleagues from University of Alberta, work which caused some considerable discomfort to the government back then (when they were sagging rather than zigging).  Schindler’s results had been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) in 2010.  Their article concluded with the particularly blunt statement:

“Contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic priority polluting elements (PPE) to the Athabasca River (AR) and its tributaries via air and water pathways. This increase confirms the serious defects of the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), which has not detected such patterns in the AR watershed. Detailed long-term monitoring is essential to distinguish the sources of these contaminants and control their potential impacts on environmental and human health. A robust monitoring program to measure exposure and health of fish, wildlife, and humans should be implemented in the region affected by oil sands development”.

(I have added italicized words to explain acronyms in the original text, and removed some citations to other scientific work.)

(In the following paragraphs, all quotations are from abstracts of the work presented at the SEPAC conference.)  At the time, Schindler’s report caused angry denials from government.  But the talks presented last week at SEPAC support and extend his findings that tar sands operations, particularly the operation of large bitumen upgraders, result in aerial pollution of a variety of toxic substances over long distances.  Specifically, where Schindler’s group reported that 13 toxic elements — Sb, As, Be, Cd, Cr, Cu, Pb, Hg, Ni, Se, Ag, Tl, and Zn – were being delivered to the Athabasca River watershed, the Environment Canada researchers report that

“aerial loadings of all 13 PPEs were 1.5-13X higher at sites within 50 km of the upgraders than those >50 km away and were highest within 10 km of the upgraders. Loadings of As, Cr, Ni, and Zn were especially high, reaching up to 360, 1170, 1120, and 3270 μg m-2, respectively”.

In addition, they report

“loadings of Co, Mn, and V were also elevated within 50 km of the upgraders, reaching up to 480, 22160, and 7150 μg m-2, respectively”. And “loadings of particulate-bound methyl Hg (MeHg) increased exponentially with proximity to the upgraders”.

The latter is particularly important given that methyl mercury is a neurotoxin that bioaccumulates in foodwebs.  Because they collected lake sediment cores as well as snow samples, Kirk and colleagues were able to show that the presence of these contaminants has increased markedly since tar sands mining commenced in the 1970s.

In one of the talks, the Environment Canada team report on analyses of lake sediment cores representing accumulated sediments over the last 50+ years in five lakes within 35 km of the bitumen upgrader facilities near Fort McMurray plus one 100 km away.  They showed that

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons PAHs (47 analytes) increased precipitously beginning at the early 1970s, particularly C1-C4-alkylated PAHs and C1-C4-dibenzothiophenes (DBTs). In 4 of 5 near-field lakes, maximum concentrations were observed from the most recent (~2009-10) sediments. Total (Σ)PAH fluxes were 2.5 to 23-times greater than pre-1960 background levels. Increases were also evident in Namur Lake, and in a lake 22 km southwest of the upgraders, but were less pronounced (2-8-fold) and had subsurface maxima in sediments dated to 2006.  C1-C4 alkylated PAHs and DBTs predominated in all sediment samples, representing 55 to 89% and 1.8 to 17% of the ΣPAHs, respectively.”

Namur Lake is about 100 km from any tar sands activity, but PAH concentrations have increased three-fold since the early 1970s.  Further, the PAHs detected have petrogenic signatures confirming that they are derived from tar sands oils rather than generated through effects of forest fire.  David Schindler’s response on hearing of these new results was, “That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found.”  It will certainly be interesting to see these results once they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Or maybe Environment Canada will put them out in a glossy document available on their website – with a nice Foreward by Peter Kent.

The fact is that tar sands oil production is a very messy business.  This chemical contamination of the surrounding region via aerial delivery is just one part of the problem.  In addition there is the direct use of water in the extraction and upgrading processes, resulting in giant tailings ponds full of toxic, water which cannot be released back to the environment.  And there is the use of massive amounts of energy to extract the oil –since the energy comes from fossil fuels that use of energy contributes directly to release of greenhouse gases.  Widespread chemical pollution, permanent sequestration of vast amounts of contaminated water, and release of substantial greenhouse gases to obtain the oil – these three factors are the reason why tar sands oil is such a dirty product, and so bad for Canada’s environment.

Diagram showing the likely supply of tar sands oil, and the demand as projected by IEA. Image © Barry Saxifrage/ Vancouver Observer

Of course, our Canadian government has not altered tack because of a sudden concern for the environment.  Nothing in recent statements by Minister Flaherty or PM Harper suggest such a radical rethink.  The shifting stance of our government is based on purely economic events.  Things started to get complicated when the International Energy Agency released its 2012 World Energy Outlook.  In it, IEA has predicted that the USA could become the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels by 2020, and that North America could become a net exporter by 2030, while also predicting that the global demand for oil will only grow slowly from 87.4 to 99.7 million barrels per day between 2011 and 2035 if it grows at all.  (That rate guarantees a global mean temperature rise of 3.6oC so watch out!)  IEA provides a second projection in which the world actually gets smart about energy efficiency, and in this one demand for oil peaks at 91 million barrels per day before 2020 then declines to 87 by 2035 – 12.7 million fewer barrels per day than their current trends projection and lower than at present.

Two figures provided by IEA in press document accompanying the 2012 World Energy Outlook

Now Canada’s tar sand oil is expensive to produce so any weakening of global demand is likely to hit it first.  Indeed, recent reports of temporary slackening of demand (and falling prices), or growing labor costs making the cost of producing it even higher have led to expectations that the rates of growth that the government was trumpeting as both likely and essential just days ago are not going to happen.  Some development plans will be slowed.  Some will never get announced.  And horror of horrors, some leases may be allowed to lapse.  All of which would be a good thing for our environment, and our contribution to global climate change.

So, never count your oil profits before they are realized, but stay tuned because the government may zig again next week – they have important decisions concerning China and tar sands coming up very soon.

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