05 September 2008


Environmental hazard comes home to roost at oilsands lakes

From the top of the 32-metre sand pile at the Albian Energy oilsands site, the views are magnificent. The boreal forest spreads to a horizon punctuated by the region's three other oilsands plants. But this viewpoint is normally off-limits. The hill, with a circumference of about 12 kilometres, is in reality a tailings pond. Shaped like a giant doughnut, the water is in the middle - a five-square-kilometre lake, an attractive spot for migrating waterfowl. But unlike most tailings ponds, Shell Oil says this one is designed to keep birds away. A marine radar system sits on the edge, sweeping the sky for any movement. "We have four quadrants, and when birds are detected in one area, the cannons are fired in that area only. That way the birds don't get used to the noise; they are deterred from the area," says environment manager Darrell Martindale. The sound-makers are either floating or near the water's edge. One version resembles a falcon - predators that waterfowl will flee from. The experience at Shell is markedly different from Syncrude, which was unable to get its sound-makers and scarecrows on the water after a major storm this spring and 500 tar-soaked ducks perished. "Our systems are now up and tested. We are ready for the fall migration," says Steve Gaudet, manager of environment and reclamation for Syncrude. "We are still studying (the bird deaths) and considering new solutions for the future," he says. Small tailings ponds are common in the mining industry, but the oilsands industry uses a lot of water - between two and five barrels to extract a barrel of bitumen from the sands and clays. Since the late 1960s, the ponds have grown to become lakes covering about 50 square kilometres of the mine sites. Two of the biggest challenges for the oilsands industry are reducing use of water, and getting the tailings to settle more quickly. The natural settling time can be up to 20 years, so there is a huge push on to master dry tailings, which will speed reclamation. No discharge into the Athabasca River is permitted.

Simon Dyer, oilsands program director at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, says the industry and government are way behind on this issue. He says while there may be some progress in cutting water use and improving tailings settling, that work is dwarfed by the additional projects now being built, planned and proposed. "They're studying everything, but the cumulative effect of all these projects will have an enormous impact on the local environment. Which is why we have called for a halt to new oilsands approvals and lease sales" until better environmental-management systems are in place, he says. Dyer says the call for a moratorium far from radical. "If we stopped now, the projects already approved would continue, and oilsands production would still see production rise (from 856,000 barrels per day) to about three million barrels per day within a decade." Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says for many reasons, he sees a slowing of construction in some areas, particularly the oilsands and upgrader projects. Oilsands firms are adding material to help the tailings settle faster. Shell is using a hydrotransport system that uses cooler water to begin the separation process in the pipe en route to the plant. Shell is able to recycle more than 80% of its water, but still draws 0.2% of the Athabasca River's mean flow. That will jump to 0.64% when all planned expansions bring the plant's capacity to 770,000 barrels a day from the current 155,000 bpd. Shell is already planning to build a holding pond so production can continue when river withdrawals can't. So the future looks like large freshwater holding ponds, and much smaller tailings ponds. When dry tailings are perfected, there will be no tailings ponds at all, just piles of sand ready for reclamation.
(Edmonton Journal 080905)

By the time this is all done, a good chunk of Northern Alberta is going to be a devastated, toxic, environmental disaster. But certainly an insignificant price to pay to keep the auto fleet moving cheaply, no?

The sooner we realize that car ownership should be a privilege and not a right, the sooner we can get to auto independence in how we design and scale our communities, how we transport our goods across large distances and how we socialize with each other.

And yes, I do realize that the auto fleet is a minor percentage of the entire petroleum equation.

It just pains me to think that we have to clear cut larger and large swaths of the Earth's surface to keep a paradigm as frivilous and dead-ended as the L.A. (only for an extreme example) freeway system functioning. Internal combustion is an ancient technology -- isn't it time we collectively made the effort to move on to something better?

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