Students examine the oil sands

By Andrew Barbero

One University of Calgary class aims to keep Alberta green, both environmentally and financially.

The university’s environmental science department sent 22 students on a field school experience to study the oil sands and other potentially at-risk industrial environments throughout northern and southern Alberta. These excursions, which occurred two weeks prior to the beginning of the fall semester, gave students an up-close look at the impacts and nuances of Alberta’s economic engine.

“We had a vague sense of what to expect,” said environmental studies student Danny Chavez. “But the sheer scale of the operation was quite shocking.”

Unlike traditional petroleum, the oil sand deposits around the Athabasca River in northern Alberta consist of a mixture of oil, sand, minerals and water. Extracting the oil from that mixture requires a great deal of effort, resource and expense; and only today’s high crude prices make the endeavor economically feasible. However, a significant environmental footprint is left behind.

“The oil sands have a tremendous environmental impact,” said Sierra Club prairie chapter director Lindsey Telfer. “Current estimates say four barrels of water are needed to extract one barrel of oil and water used in the oil sands can’t be used for anything else. So, up north, we’re beginning to see dam after dam filled with toxic water.”

Telfer warned the environmental impact is not contained within Alberta.

“The oil sands are located in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest,” explained Telfer. “It can’t just be put back by the reclamation process. We are starting to see acid rain in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. There is an increase in air pollutants and greenhouse gases. We need to take time to identify the limits of oil sands sustainability.”

However, the visiting environmental science class observed some positive changes.

“Alberta Environment is very cautious when it comes to things like water,” said Chavez. “Each mine is allotted so much and they track it very carefully. Overall, oil companies have a lot invested in these projects so they don’t want to screw up. They are concerned about their environmental impact.”

The provincial government does not require oil companies to leave mined sites in original condition, but instead in a vague state of equivalent land capability.

“[Oil companies] undertake significant efforts to reclaim the land,” said U of C chemistry professor and course instructor Jürgen Gailer. “When you take out as much as 30 metres of soil, the landscape will not look identical, but from a productivity standpoint, the environment functions in much the same way it should.”

For their part, oil companies realize how important sustainability is to their bottom line.

“The oil sands are a legacy resource for Albertans,” said Suncor Energy’s spokesman Brad Bellows.

Suncor pioneered oil sands exploration and will celebrate their 40th anniversary of oil sands exploration this month.

“There is a variety of social and environmental challenges associated with oil sands exploration, but we have a history of overcoming challenges,” said Bellows. “We have reduced our water use, cutting it in half, but there is a still of lot of work to be done.”

In a report on climate change released earlier this month by Suncor, the company claimed to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent since 1990, as well as investing approximately $250 million in renewable energy initiatives.

“It is a billion-dollar industry producing a million barrels of oil per day,” explained Bellows. “We have sufficient resources at this point to continue for another 100 years.

But we definitely have to look at water resources; they’re critical for the province and the industry.”

But for environmentalists like Telfer, some responsibilities don’t fall under corporate jurisdictions.

“Oil companies have fiduciary responsibilities, but it’s the government’s responsibility to set terms for industrial development in the region, and the government has failed to do that,” said Telfer. Telfer explained the government could change its ways if the voters made the oil sands an issue.

“We are coming upon a very busy election year municipally, provincially and federally,” she said. “It’s an opportune time to have these discussions with our representatives.”

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