TOPICS > Science

Canadian Oil Sands Produce Economic Benefits, Environmental Costs

November 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago looks at the economic benefits and the environmental costs of oil production in Canada's Alberta province.

JIM LEHRER: Now: the environmental costs and economic benefits of getting new oil in Canada’s western province of Alberta. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Canada is by far the largest supplier of oil to the United States, sending 1.8 million barrels south every day. And companies are spending billions looking for more, digging under stripped-out forests in search of a form of petroleum called bitumen. Environmental and native groups say the oil, which they call tar sands oil, hurts the air, land and water. They point to what it takes to get it to market.

And it takes a lot. Huge shovels dig the sand out and bitumen out of the earth and pile it into gigantic trucks. Syncrude, a joint venture among seven oil companies, runs its equipment around the clock 365 days a year.

PETER READ, Syncrude: A truck will do a round trip in every — anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how long the haul is, typically.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The bitumen is separated out and pumped to the nearby refinery. The remaining sand and clay, which is highly toxic, is pumped out into tailing or waste ponds that dot the landscape. The process uses an enormous amount of energy, according to Simon Dyer. He works for an institute promoting alternative energy.

SIMON DYER, The Pembina Institute: The oil sands is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada. On a per-barrel basis, it takes about — produces about three times as much greenhouse gas pollution extracting and upgrading a barrel of oil from the oil sands as conventional Canadian or North American production.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Alberta’s minister of the environment, Rob Renner, insists, since Canadian oil doesn’t have to be shipped, it’s actually no worse for the environment.

ROB RENNER, minister of environment, Alberta, Canada: We have just concluded a very in-depth study by an independent third party that — that considers the life cycle, sort of the well to wheels on any given source of oil. And the oil sands compare very favorably with conventional oil.

'An economic driver'

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And, he says, Canadian oil is critical to the economies of both countries.

ROB RENNER: The oil sands are an economic driver for all of Canada. And much of the industrial heartland of the United States is contributing very significantly inventory and equipment into the oil sands.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There's no question that it's been good for the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, which is booming.

MAN: Because it's a boomtown, I can ask for more wages and get more wages.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And it's been good for refinery workers in Midwestern states. This BP facility in Whiting, Indiana, just launched a $3.8 billion expansion plan to bring in more Canadian crude. Union boss Jim Buchanan:

JIM BUCHANAN, Pipe Fitters Local 597: That's our lifeblood. We will probably have upwards of 1,400 pipe fitters on this particular project.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And there are other advantages, according to industry lobbyist David Sykuta.

DAVID SYKUTA, executive director, Illinois Petroleum Council: It comes from a friendly country that shares our values. And it comes in a pipeline, rather than a tanker. And it comes from a democracy, rather than a dictatorship. To me, those are three things that tend to trump other concerns.

Environmental concerns

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But those other concerns disturb the opponents. In addition to worrying about CO2 emissions, they fear what the mining is doing to the water. Alberta's mining operations lie along the Athabasca River, part of the third largest watershed in the world. George Poitrus thinks, leakage of toxic waste from the tailing ponds is harming members of his Mikisew Cree Nation that has lived along the river basin for countless generations.

GEORGE POITRAS, Mikisew Cree First Nation: The worst types of cancer that we are seeing are those rare cancers, cancers that you should find one per case in a population of 100,000. And we're finding two or three, possibly more.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The company says the seepage into the Athabasca River Basin is insignificant. But there no question that tailing ponds can be deadly for wildlife. Last year, 1,600 migrating ducks flew into one of Syncrude's tailing ponds and drowned.

The process also uses a lot of water. It takes between two and four-and-a-half barrels of freshwater to extract and upgrade one barrel of oil.

Steven Gaudet, who is Syncrude's manager of environmental affairs, says they're working to change that.

STEVE GAUDET, Syncrude: We recycle nearly 85 percent of our water over and again. If you were to track one molecule of water through that system, you would see a recycling of that molecule over 18 times within our process.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And, finally, there is what environmentalists say the mining does to the land.

SIMON DYER: The wetlands and peatlands that you see flying over this landscape will never be reclaimed. And the industry has really a poor track record of actually dealing with the toxic tailings, the waste material that is the byproduct of the process.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Gaudet disagrees. He points with pride to bison which graze on reclaimed acres. Syncrude spent $100 million on land reclamation in 2008 and plans to spend the same amount this year.

STEVE GAUDET: Here on this site alone, we have reclaimed over 4,600 hectares of land. And, of that 4,600, we have begun to get those lands certified with the provincial government. And, last year, we had 100 hectares certified as being fully reclaimed.

Land preservation efforts

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: One hundred hectares, or 257 acres, means only 0.2 percent of the mined area has been fully restored since mining operations began in Alberta in 1967. The industry says, a lot of the land will be saved by a new method called steam-assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD, instead of open pit mining.

At this ConocoPhillips SAGD facility outside of Fort McMurray steam is sent to the wellheads and injected into the ground. The steam softens the bitumen until it is fluid enough to be pumped back to the plant. The water is then reused to make more steam.

The SAGD process clearly doesn't disturb the land in the same way that open pit mining does. But because so much natural gas is burned to create the steam that is needed, the SAGD process releases nearly twice as many greenhouse gases as open pit mining does. Millions of dollars are being spent to find ways to bring those emissions down, says ConocoPhillips vice president Perry Berkenpas.

PERRY BERKENPAS, vice president, ConocoPhillips: In the next number of years, technology will unlock more ability to close that gap and to even improve it beyond what is done in rest of the industry. So, understand that we're going to get there. We know we need to get there. ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Dyer, who deplores the additional greenhouse gas emissions, thinks all the investment being poured into Alberta's oil fields is going in the wrong direction.

SIMON DYER: By looking into this infrastructure there, you know, the -- the billions in capital that are being invested in pipelines and refineries to move this stuff to the U.S., we're basically prolonging the tough decision, which is that we need to make the transition to a sustainable energy future.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Canadian officials say they will not release their detailed climate change plans, including emission caps on oil sands, until it is known what the U.S. plans to present at the climate treaty talks next month.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama acknowledged this weekend that the upcoming Copenhagen summit will not result in a binding deal on reducing emissions. Instead, it will lay out general goals for an international treaty.