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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Can New Technology Help The Oil Sands Industry Clean Up Its Act?

The oil sands industry is developing new technologies to reduce pollution and the impact on the lands where they operate – an increasing concern as extraction operations ramp up.

But will it be enough?

The Economist recently published a glowing article on the various new technologies that companies are deploying in the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada.

To start, there is “in-situ” production. Traditional oil sands production is closer to strip mining than to conventional oil drilling and has myriad negative environmental effects. The land is cleared, often by removing large swathes of forests, and the oil sands are dug up from the ground. They are then heavily processed, since the oil sands by themselves are too heavy to flow through a pipeline until they are treated. Pools of toxic waste are left over after processing.

In-situ production leaves a smaller impact on the land. It injects steam underground, essentially heating the oil up until it becomes a liquid, allowing it to flow more easily through a pipeline. This process dramatically cuts down on the surface impact by both clearing less land, and producing less toxic waste in pools. The proportion of oil sands produced via the in-situ process has grown to 53 percent, and will continue to increase.

There is also an idea to use oil-based solvents like butane and propane to reduce the need for steam. By injecting these chemicals underground, oil sands producers could reduce the amount of water needed in the injection process. This, in turn, would reduce the amount of natural gas needed to heat water into steam, thereby reducing emissions. The Economist didn’t touch on the effects on groundwater by injecting higher volumes of solvents underground.

And there was one other process that sounds like a nightmare scenario for environmentalists – using small nuclear reactors to help power oil sands production. Needless to say, this one is still a ways off from becoming a reality.

Readers of the article can be forgiven for getting the impression that, despite the environmental problems associated with oil sands development, they are minor and are being solved through better technology.

That’s not necessarily the case.

Royal Dutch Shell has failed to achieve its target of cleaning up toxic waste at its oil sands sites. According to Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, despite Shell’s insistence that it would make progress at reducing toxic waste, the level of waste actually increased as a result of higher production.

And it’s not just Shell. Its competitors, Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude Canada, also fell short of their toxic waste cleanup targets.

Failing to adhere to the targets opens the companies up to penalties under Alberta’s environmental regulations. But instead of assessing penalties, Alberta has previously waived them, as The Wall Street Journal reported in August. The province’s environmental regulation agency said that it would not assess penalties because the industry is making progress, but cautioned that it would review progress in a report due out in 2015.

Despite breaching the toxic waste reduction targets, Shell has pressured the government to relax the standards. “Prescriptive regulation puts you in a box,” Lorraine Mitchelmore, president of Shell Canada, said.

In 2013, Alberta Premier Alison Redford promised that toxic waste ponds would “disappear from Alberta's landscape in the very near future,” but Shell says that is not likely.

In fact, there are plans to expand toxic waste pools. Syncrude is building a massive lake for toxic waste, known as Base Mine Lake. It describes the plan as a “world-class demonstration scale research facility” that will allow areas to be totally reclaimed.

The Pembina Institute says these “pit lakes” are a massive gamble. They involve pouring fresh water on top of toxic waste and hoping that the two don’t mix. The fresh water sits on top, and theoretically can support active fisheries and vegetation. Pembina notes that there are serious concerns involving “long-term monitoring liabilities, salinity concerns, and the chronic toxicity of water that is left over from the oil sands extraction process.”

It is not a pretty picture.

Oil sands companies are improving technology that may incrementally reduce the environmental impact of their operations, but meanwhile, there is a lot of damage left in the wake of the expanding industry.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com




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