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Poor monitoring erodes confidence in the oil sands

With the escalating uproar among citizens and would-be revolutionaries in the Middle East and Libya, Alberta’s so-called “dirty oil” should be looking a great deal more attractive to America these days.


April 18, 2011
by Joe Terrett, Editor

With the escalating uproar among citizens and would-be revolutionaries in the Middle East and Libya, Alberta’s so-called “dirty oil” should be looking a great deal more attractive to America these days. Too bad the Alberta government’s confused method of measuring environmental impact on, for example, the Athabasca River, will do little to clean up that dirty image.

Environmentalists have focused their carbon ire on Alberta’s black gold because extracting it from the earth is energy-intensive and the bitumen has to be processed from its heavy form to a lighter grade before it can be processed into gasoline for our carbon-emitting vehicles and homes. And let’s not forget the pollution, contamination and the dead ducks.

This really upsets the carbon accountants and green warriors who would like to see activity in the oil sands halted or at least slowed down. Their efforts of late include an attempt to hang up the 2,700-kilometre Keystone XL oil sands pipeline to Texas with a report released by Washington’s Natural Resources Defense Council. It suggests Alberta pipelines are 16 times more likely than US pipelines to spring leaks because of internal corrosion. Opponents say a spill could damage key drinking water sources.

Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board has invoked the apples and oranges defence, calling the comparisons between pipeline systems unfair, and it suggests the failure rate of Canadian pipes is actually less than half the US figure.

Not that it matters. Repairing the public relations damage is an uphill battle when the oil sands is involved, which is why the Alberta government’s fumbling of how it monitors the impact of the oil sands on the Athabasca River has been so disappointing.

Alberta has said contamination in the river comes from eroding oil sands deposits along the riverbank, but is stable and at low levels. A government-appointed scientific panel begs to differ, backing independent research that has traced hydrocarbons and heavy metals found in the land and water to smokestack emissions.

The problem, it seems, is the government’s monitoring efforts weren’t actually looking at where pollutants were coming from, despite the puffing and spewing of a massive industrial development in the otherwise pristine north, but to what extent the water quality was affected. Nor was water and air monitoring well co-ordinated.

So far, Athabasca’s level of contamination is “well below” human health guidelines, although the fish may not be so lucky.

After several less than complimentary reports from several scientific panels, the Alberta government appears to be getting the message and it’s presently overhauling the way it monitors the industry’s impact on the environment.

In December, a seven-member panel from the Royal Society of Canada noted both the federal and Alberta governments, particularly the province’s Environment and Resource Development ministries, have not kept up with the industry’s growth. The panel advises a “serious” review of their ability to effectively maintain “the specialized technical expertise needed to regulate industrial development of this scope and sophistication.”

The oil sands will be with us a long time. Alberta needs to take the Royal Society’s advice to heart.