Tar Sands and Pipelines

Alberta Tar Sands

In northern Alberta, beneath 4.3 million hectares (10.6 million acres), an area the size of Florida lay the Alberta Tar Sands. Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay and a heavy crude oil, or tarry substance called bitumen. To get the oil out of the ground Industry uses either strip-mining or In-Sutu or “in-place” extraction. The extracted bitumen is later processed in industrial facilities called upgraders into synthetic crude oil to be piped to the U.S. for refining. These up grader facilities look like “refinery cities” with smoke stacks bellowing polluting emissions and wastewater emptying into toxic tailing ponds. As the limits to strip mining are being researched Athabasca, in-situ technology is quickly becoming the primary development in the area. SAG-D (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) is another energy intensive and polluting system where they pump steam under the earth making the bitumen to flow through wells using steam or solvents.

For each barrel of oil produced from the tar sands, between 2 and 6 barrels of water is required. In 2007, The Alberta Government approved withdrawal of 119.5 billion gallons of water for tar sands extraction. An estimated 82% of this water comes from the Athabasca River. Toxic wastewater is discharged in holding ponds that leak eleven million liters per day into the Athabasca River and groundwater. The river, and all water, flows downstream (northward) further into Indigenous territories. This contaminated water has been proven to cause rare cancers to the indigenous community members and abnormalities and deformations to fish.

Production in the Alberta tar sands increased from 482,000 to 1.3 million barrels/day between 1995 and 2008 and is projected to double by 2020. By 2008, mining had disturbed 530 km of boreal landscape, with tailings ponds covering more than 130 km. Development of the tar sands, including mining, processing, and tailings pond leakage, has raised concerns about pollution of the Athabasca River. Downstream residents fear that increased cancer rates may be related to pollution from the oil sands industry. Based in part on results from the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), industry, government and related agencies claim that human health and the environment are not at risk from oil sands development and that the source of elements and polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) in the AR and its tributaries are natural. However, the reliability of RAMP findings has been questioned repeatedly. Hence, accurate, independent assessments of the effects of the oil sands industry on concentrations of toxic elements in the AR and its tributaries are unavailable until recently when scientic studies from the Univerity of Alberta showed that tar sands developments are cancer causing toxics to the surrounding water and air. The north-flowing AR, its tributaries, the Athabasca Delta (AD), and Lake Athabasca (LA) were investigated to test the hypothesis that increased concentrations of elements in these water bodies are entirely from natural sources. In February and June 2008, surface water was collected from 37 and 47 sites. In March, the accumulated winter snowpack was sampled at 31 sites. Sites on the AR were chosen upstream or downstream of oil sands mining and processing activity. Upstream sites and all sites near oil sands development are exposed directly to the McMurray Geologic Formation.

Enbridge and TransCanada Pipelines

The tar sands project affects First Nations near the extraction sites and downstream by causing water pollution, air pollution, health issues, and the destruction of their traditional way of life. This affects First Nations across Canada impacted by pipelines crossing their traditional lands. In British Columbia, First Nations are fighting several new pipeline proposal including Enbridge corporations proposed “Northern Gateway Pipeline” In the Midwest and rocky mountain corridor Native American tribes are now dealing with TransCanada’s “Keystone XL Pipeline, this proposed pipeline will haul 900,000 barrels of Alberta Tar Sands per day if it is permitted. USA tribes have also had to deal with the TransCanada’s “Keystone Pipeline” and Enbridge’s “Alberta Clipper Pipeline” both transporting dirty tar sands oil to US markets.

Northern Gateway Pipeline

I currently campaign against the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project in my home town in Canada. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project proposal entails the construction of an 1170 km, 36” pipeline that would carry 525,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Bruderheim, Alberta, west to a deep-sea marine terminal in Kitimaat, British Columbia. Similar to conventional crude oil, tar sands oil contains a complex mixture of aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthanes, and paraffins, but has lower sulphur content, and is not water soluble. A smaller 20” pipeline would transport condensate from the coast (at Kitimaat) to Alberta. Condensate is a kerosene-like liquid used to thin heavy oil. Typically condensate contains a number of toxic chemicals including pentane, benzene, toluene, xylene, and hydrogen sulphide.
The Northe Gateway Pipeline would cross over 1000 streams and rivers, and the potential impacts to these waterways and the fish they support are critical points of contention along the route. Many of these streams and rivers have high economic and cultural significance, One of the major concerns regarding the pipeline project in BC is in regards to the important fisheries in the tributaries of the Fraser and Skeena watersheds. The risks to the fresh water ecosystems are enormous. The pipeline would incur serious long-term damage that would vastly outweigh the short-term economic benefits that Enbridge has promised. The problem with oil tanker traffic even in the open ocean off the coast of BC is that they will be travelling through feeding grounds for humpback and killer whales, past the entrances to hundreds of salmon spawning streams, and by beaches and bays used by what has recently been confirmed to be a unique sub-species of rainforest wolf. This stretch of coast is also the heart of BC’s commercial fishery, worth millions of dollars. Ocean-going tankers carrying the oil from the port of Kitimaat would vary in size, but the largest would be of VLCC classification (literally “Very Large Crude Carrier”). Each of these VLCCs would carry 2.3 million barrels of oil through the Douglas Channel and reach 70 feet below the surface of water. Other tankers are capable of carrying 1.1 billion barrels of oil will also be used.
The measured widths of the proposed Kitimaat port is only 10.36 km across. South West of that lies a 35 km passage that has an average width of 6 km across, making passage treacherous. The total distance from the Kitimaat Port to the open Ocean is 185.72 km. The inlet will need to be dredged in parts to allow for the extremely large tankers to pass, destroying the marine ecosystem in the process. The risk of tankers running aground exponentially goes up, and so does the effect on the economy, peoples, wildlife, and both indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. The terrestrial landscape is much more diverse than Alaska, and the repercussions are still being felt and could also spell disaster for the citizens.

TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline

I did campaign work against the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline over this past summer. There were three First Nations delegates including myself and three Native American delegates. We spoke to Native American communities that would be impacted by this project and encouraged each community to pass resolutions against the pipeline project.
The Keystone XL pipeline is designed to ship oil from the tar sands to the Midwestern and Southern United States will only exacerbate this situation for Enbridge. TransCanada is proposing a 36-inch, 1700 mile, pipeline that would carry 900,000 barrels of Tar Sands oil from Haristy, Montana to Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline was strategically placed not to cross any tribal lands. The proposed route crosses several historical homelands of tribes. This pipeline will disturb artifacts found during the construction of this pipeline, and they will be removed and placed in historical societies. The pipeline is proposed to cross through the “Ogallala Aquifer”, America’s largest aquifer, which in the Sand Hills Region of Nebraska is only three feet below the ground level. The “Ogallala Aquifer” supplies water to two million people (including several tribes) in eight states, supplies irrigation water for agriculture (grains, corn), and a drinking supply for cattle (beef).
Tribal governments along the route have signed petitions against the proposed pipeline. They oppose this pipeline as it will affect their lands, and waters (including the “Ogallala Aquifer”) when this pipeline leaks. They also stand in unity with the First Nation Indigenous Communities directly impacted by the mining, and environmental contamination of their air, lands and waters.
This pipeline is not needed at this time as they do not have the capacity to produce enough oil to fill this pipeline. So they are now seeking ways to expand their production to fill these pipelines.

One Response to “Tar Sands and Pipelines”
  1. H.Elliot says:

    Great blog, but is there any chance that you could post some references too? I realize that’s a lot of extra work, but since I’m new to the discussion, I would feel more comfortable quoting some of these numbers, etc., if I knew where they came from.

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