Alberta's oilsands occupy an area slightly smaller than the state of Florida. However, only a small percentage of the 140,000 square kilometres of oilsands-around 3,000 square kilometres-is currently developed, but even that small percentage has far-ranging environmental impacts.
The issues surrounding the production and use of Alberta's economic backbone and environmental black eye were discussed at a Wed., Mar. 12 panel, part of the University of Calgary Students' Union's Enviropalooza Week focusing on oilsands awareness.
Of the resource that is recoverable, it is estimated by the provincial government that 80 per cent can only be accessed by steam-injection (in situ) techniques while
20 per cent requires surface mining. Surface mining is much more intensive and requires the removal of any surface materials before the oilsands beneath are accessible. The majority of Alberta's oilsands resource lies below old-growth, boreal forest.
"We have to deal with the impact of mining operations," said panelist Brian Maynard, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers vice president of stewardship and public affairs. "That means at the end of the day that we have to reclaim land.
We, as industry, have committed to return to the land to an equiva-
lent status at the end of the day."
Maynard noted that they are reclaiming land as they produce, but admitted that the industry is not reclaiming land fast enough.
"We, as an industry, have to do a better job of that," said Maynard. "We have to address some of those challenges."
The technology currently being used in both the mining and in situ are energy intensive, but a process being brought into Alberta by a project set to begin production in 2008 may address the efficiency of in situ techniques.
The process, toe-to-heel air injection, or THAI, uses two wells, one vertical and one horizontal. Air is sent down the vertical well and ignited, reducing the viscosity of the oil in the ground. The oil then drains down the horizontal well and rises to the surface. THAI extracts 70–80 per cent of the oil. Other methods recover anywhere from 10–40 per cent.
But for the 20 per cent of resources that are accessible by strip mining-because of the close proximity to the surface-Maynard noted there isn't a technology to replace the current method.
"[The 20 per cent of strip mining oilsands are] easy to get at," said Maynard. "[The mining is] cheaper technology and, obviously, more profitable."
For the other 80 per cent inaccessible by mining, the process requires a massive injection of steam into the ground. Maynard explained that it's currently a very inefficient technology and that the industry is currently exploring many alternatives, not just the THAI method.
"Industry is pursuing many different technologies and many of the technologies that we are pursuing will have lower environmental impact than existing technologies," he said.
The panel raised the issue of the pace and scale of development. Pembina Institute policy analyst and panelist Jennifer Grant felt that environmental concerns needed to be addressed first before development gets out of hand.
"One of the things that the Pembina Institute is proposing to get a handle on the scale of oilsands is the temporary moratorium [on development]," said Grant. "That will allow us to catch up and get ahead of development in terms of environmental management."
Grant noted there are alternative technologies, but felt that the pause on development was necessary to test them out.
With the current pace of development, the technology used in projects coming online over the next few years won't be the most efficient technology available.
"In 2020, when it's all built, it'll all be year-2000 technology," said Ebner. "It's the government's responsibility [to push industry] to lean towards the future. Not all of it works right now, but it has the potential to work quite quickly."
Ebner added that we should question how many projects the government approves that don't have carbon capture technology.
"Waiting for industry to produce all of the developments might be waiting too long," Ebner added.
Panelist Preston McEachern, head of science in the Oilsands Environmental Management division with Alberta Environment, noted that the government doesn't promote any single technology but have instead created targets and caps for greenhouse gas emissions.
The oilsands are projected to become the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases in Canada, accounting for approximately four per cent of all emissions according to McEachern. That share is expected to grow as development of the oilsands continues.
"We're on track to go to six per cent," said Maynard. "[But] I contrast that with the transportation sector, which is everything from the movement of our food and the goods and services we consume to our use of vehicles, accounts for
27 per cent of Canada's emissions. My point is not that industry doesn't have a role to play here or that it's not our problem, but we're not all of the problem."
Alberta has legislated greenhouse gas emissions targets and the federal government released stricter regulations this past week, but Grant pointed out she thinks that even those standards are weak and don't require enough of a reduction on the part of the oilsands industry.
"[The federal regulations] only require a project to implement carbon capture and storage, which is an end-of-the-pipe solution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, by late 2012," said Grant. "That excludes a number of projects which are currently in development."
Beyond greenhouse gases, oilsands developments face water allocation and recycling issues. Currently, mining operations are licensed to draw 349 million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca river annually. Though that is twice the water used by the city of Calgary each year, it represents only one per cent of the Athabasca's flow.
Ebner noted that the amount of water used by the oilsands pales in comparison to that used by agriculture, which accounts for 70 per cent of water used in the province.
The panel also discussed the issues surrounding the export of oil and the effect of rapid development on Fort McMurray and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Fort McMurray's population has ballooned. From 1999 to 2006, the population of Fort McMurray grew at a rate of 8.5 per cent per year.
The Wed., Mar. 12 panel was part of the SU's Enviropalooza Week. Enviropalooza continues with a Busking for Smiles performance in MacEwan Student
Centre's north courtyard Thu. at noon, and with a sustainability open house in MacEwan Hall Fri.