MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., February 7, 2014 – A recent report using data from the University of Toronto on the emissions from the oil sands in Canada indicates that they are significantly higher than has been predicted. The report mentions aromatic hydrocarbons as some of the dangerous substances being emitted.
This is of special interest to us in the US because the Keystone pipeline is closely linked to transporting the oil that is produced from the oil sands in Canada. There is a media blitz right now to get approval of the Keystone pipeline that has been delayed by President Obama’s questions about the environmental impact of the pipeline.
Producing oil from oil sands is a difficult process. There are two main methods, one includes surface mining of the sands, milling of the ore to optimum size, addition of water, separation of the sand and finally the separation of the oil from the water using a solvent and flotation separation (froth process). This process is used to produce most of the oil from the oil sands. The water is usually treated and reused in the process. The sand and the sediment material from the froth process are collected in tailing ponds that according to the article mentioned above are producing a large portion of the reported emisions.
The second method appears to be less harmful to the environment, but it is very energy intensive. This method uses injection and production wells, drilled in tandem. Both wells are completed horizontally in the oil sand formation, one above the other. The upper completion serves to inject steam and the lower formation receives the oil made liquid by the steam and pumps it out to the surface. Both of these processes are nicely animated for an easy message to the public.
The crux of the impact from these processes appear to be the retention of tailings in ponds. The clays and residual hydrocarbons take a long time to settle, so there is a possibility of emissions to the air as well as contamination of ground water. There is also the question of the water used in both processes as the portion recycled is only part of the demand for steam injection, ore processing and dilution. There is also the question of how the final solids are managed. Since there are additions to the original sands, placement of them in the original depleted pits may not be appropriate. This is difficult to assess not knowing all the details of the process.
The oil produced from oil sands in Canada is used mainly for heating oil, lubricants, plastics and other secondary uses. It is not used for gasoline to power motor vehicles. Other by products include sulfur and sulfuric acid, used in a wide variety of industrial processes.
Those of us that have knowledge of environmental impact in all of its facets, hope that the practices used in the oil sands in Canada, never migrate to our country. We would also hope that the damage that is being caused to the environment in Canada could be mitigated; however, we don’t have any control over this.
The impact of the production of oil sands can arguably be limited to Canada. The only physical impact could occur if there is a spill because of a breach in the pipeline. We are already subject to this type of possible contamination from existing, and some would say, aging pipelines in the US.
If we consider the possibility of the Keystone pipeline being delayed or not built, the oil would have to find another way out. This would mean that tank trucks or rail tank cars would be used to transport it. Beside the higher possibility for accidental spills, there is also the pollution caused mainly by trucks travelling long distances. Some of these effects would be in the US, not just in Canada.
Environmentalists have opposed the construction of the pipeline mainly on the grounds that it would endanger pristine lands and affect wild life. It could also be that they don’t want to be complicities with the environmental debacle occurring in Canada’s oil sands. Unfortunately this latter reason does not carry any weight neither in Canada nor in the US.
It only takes reading pages in the Canadian governmental sites to notice that they are fully supporting the production of the oil sands. They appear to be nothing more than apologists for the private companies producing the oil.
It is too bad that the environmental movement has put all its eggs in opposing the Keystone pipeline. Defections from politicians are happening every day. The climate in the US appears to have changed with regards to the Keystone pipeline. The heavy investment in the media by the supporters has also eroded support by the general public, if it really cared in the first place.
Maybe environmentalist can pick a different issue that has a better chance for success. We are all waiting for one or many. Let’s pick one that has a better chance of success because the general public cares about it.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is in Facebook (Mario Salazar), Twitter (@chibcharus) and Google+.