Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alberta's toxic tarsands

This morning as I prepared to post the story below the price of oil was $99.98 a barrel. The oilsands of Alberta, Canada have been identified as the largest source of oil outside the Middle East. They have often been cited as the reason why many energy experts say "peak-oil" concerns are exaggerated.

Once again, the devil is in the details. A new report calls the process used to extract the tars from these sands and convert them into synthetic oil are extremely harmful to the environment. Indeed, environmentalists call the Alberta site the "most destructive project on Earth"! (GW)

Most destructive project on Earth: report

Alberta's oilsands. Aboriginal leaders accuse government of cover-up

Federal and provincial health officials in Alberta are trying to cover up "the most destructive project on Earth," aboriginal leaders said yesterday during the release of a report on the oilsands sector.

The report, called Canada's Toxic Tarsands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth, and released by the leading green group Environmental Defence, accused the federal government of being "missing in action" by failing to enforce federal laws to clean up oil extraction from tarsands in Alberta.

It said excavation of the oilsands in Alberta - home to the richest petroleum deposits outside the Middle East - is producing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and poisoning local water supplies.

The process to strip the tar-like bitumen out of the sands and turn it into synthetic crude oil is highly energy intensive.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation accused the federal and provincial health departments of harassing a local physician who has sounded alarm bells about rare cancers striking the community downriver from the oilsands. Both departments have filed complaints in an attempt to get Dr. John O'Connor's licence revoked because they believe he was raising undue alarm, but locals say the physician was doing his job.

"I think it seems like one organization drops the issue and another one picks it up to carry on to take his practice away from him," Adam told a news conference yesterday. "If that's the case of how they do their business, in that sense, we feel that there is a cover-up on health issues and on environmental impacts in our region." Alberta is a Conservative Party stronghold, and critics say the government does not want to alienate the powerful energy industry by clamping down.

The report estimates that Environment Minister John Baird's new proposal to regulate pollution from industrial facilities would allow greenhouse gas emissions to double to about 80 million tonnes per year by 2020 because of soft targets that require industry only to reduce emissions per unit of production instead of hard caps.

Matt Price, program manager with Environmental Defence, said that, as a result, growing emissions from the oilsands sector would wipe out gains from industries in other provinces, such as British Columbia or Ontario.

"Politically speaking, the reason we have weak federal standards on climate change is to let the tarsands grow," said Price. "There's a tailor-made loophole for the tarsands. Otherwise, we would have hard caps on industry all across Canada. So this is why the impacts of the tarsands extend well beyond the borders of Alberta." An industry spokesperson acknowledged that petroleum producers need to adopt greener practices, but suggested that they shared some common ground with environmental groups.

"While I don't see there's a lot new that's raised in here, it certainly does highlight the shared concern that the public has, the government has, the environmental group has on the environmental issues around the oilsands," said Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"Carbon capture and sequestration is the biggest kind of technology that we have right now to address the issue and we are getting on with it, but we need to get on with it quicker." Baird said his government has taken the first ever federal steps to regulate pollution from industry, but is open to studying the recommendations in the report. "Environmental Defence is a pretty credible group," said Baird. "I think I'll do them the courtesy and the favour of reading it and reflecting on what it has to say." The Harper government's plan calls for annual emissions to be slashed by 150 million tonnes by 2020, putting Canada nearly 20 years behind its legally binding international Kyoto Protocol commitments.


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