Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Alberta Tar Sands - Tailing Ponds fast facts

Premier Ed Stelmach warned Wednesday that Alberta faces a monumental struggle to slay misconceptions being spewed by the Green Giant lobby in Washington that's out to tar and feather the province over environmental damage caused by oilsands development.

Well, Gee, ya think?

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said Wednesday that only three of the approximately 500 ducks have survived "so far" after landing in a toxic tailings pond north of Fort McMurray.

Lets help Premier Stelmach and nip the misconceptions in the bud. Lets get the straight poop on the tailing ponds in Alberta.

Source: National Resources Canada )4-29-2008 - At a massive 540,000,000 cubic meters in volume, Canada’s largest dam is second in size only to China’s Three Gorges Dam. But unlike that world-famous utility structure, the monumental Syncrude Tailings Dam near Fort McMurray, Alberta, doesn’t generate electricity or attract the attention of tourists.

540,000,000 cubic meters. The worlds second largest dam is used to contain toxic sludge. How much is 540 million cubic meters? It is equivalent to all of the waste water produced by the State of Israel in 1 year. And this is only ONE pond...

Water plays an essential role in surface-mined oil sands production, with about 12 barrels needed to produce one barrel of bitumen, the heaviest, thickest form of petroleum. Although much of this water can be recycled, a significant portion — 30 percent, or almost 4 barrels — is lost, in the remaining sand and in the mud-like tailings.

“In the past ten years, we’ve accomplished more in advancing research and technology in tailings management than what we’ve done over the 30 years before that.”

40 years spent on this problem, but don't worry...

One especially promising alternative involves the simple physical principle of centrifugal force. By submitting the fluid tailings to high-pressure centrifugal force, much of the water — 50 percent — can be separated off and the remaining mud-like material can then be turned into dry, stackable tailings. Since tailings in this form are much reduced in volume, smaller-scale containment areas are required.

Operative word, promising, as in we don't have a solution yet. But they're trying!

Source: Pembina Institute 04-17-2008 - Last week, the provincial government announced a $3-million grant to the University of Alberta’s School of Energy and the Environment for research into reclaiming tailings ponds. However, this amount is minuscule compared to potential cost of the environmental challenge facing Albertans

The idea of granting approvals now and doing research later scares Dyer, who wants all new oilsands approvals to stop until a proven method of reclaiming the tailings ponds is presented.

Negligence, one of the most common grounds for action in environmental law, can’t be used because the government failed to establish a deadline for cleaning up the mess the oil industry leaves behind. “There are no time periods tied to reclamation,” says Hierlmeier. “The companies can basically take as long as they want to reclaim it.”

Also, the area is public land with no communities nearby, which means there’s no one to claim the tailings ponds are an undue nuisance to them — another common legal lever for fighting environmental damage.

On the other hand, maybe they're not really trying that hard.

But what about the birds? Good question!

Source: University of Alberta 02-28-2006 - A fake falcon and a radar-activated cannon work better at keeping birds away from oilsands waste than the current system, according to research from the University of Alberta.

The system was also able to detect four times as many birds as visual sightings and could also detect the animals at night - particularly critical for bird deterrence because shorebirds, ducks and geese are nocturnal. But although the research shows promise for radar-activated on-demand deterrents, bird deterrence is not the long-term solution, said St. Clair. In addition to deterrence, the oilsands industry is committed to the reclamation of mines and tailings ponds post-production and is also developing processes that will negate the need for hazardous ponds.

"The problem will be reduced in time as the oilsands move to technologies that do not produce tailings ponds but that technology is likely to be at least 10 years away,"

April 30, 2008 About 20 birds die a year in northern Alberta's tailings ponds, the province said.

Acceptable losses, I guess. Question: How real are those numbers? I only ask because 500 birds just died in one pond. Quite the statistically anomaly if you ask me. Another Question. If 10 years minimum of bird deterrence technologies is not a long term solution, what is? (Ignoring the previous 40 years of bird deaths.)

Some other interesting facts. According to the Pembina article linked above, the Government of Alberta has invested $5 million dollars in reclamation technologies. That's the problem with large numbers. They sound big and impressive until... well... according to the Calgary Herald The government's recently announced $25 million, three-year campaign to "brand" Alberta and sell its oilsands development as environmentally friendly

$5 million invested to make the industry green, $25 million to promote how green it is. Methinks they got that backwards.

Other numbers. Expected total capital investment in Tar Sands production by 2020 - $100 Billion Dollars. Expected government revenues, $123 billion (biggest chuck to the feds and Alberta in that order) These are 2005 numbers, using $40 a barrel for synthetic crude as an optimistic number. Canadian Oil Sands Trust first quarter 2008 results, $100/barrel for synthetic crude.

Conclusion? The money currently invested in environmental remediation is absolute peanuts. Its just about image, not results.

There is a genuine glimmer of hope. The feds, the province of Alberta and the industry together contributed money ($2.3 million, click the Funding Tab) to setup the Oil Sands Tailing Research Facility.

According to their published research goals, their research projects should be completed sometime in 2010. What that means in the real world, is anyone's guess. Forgive me for not being that hopeful.


Ken Breadner said...

Environment? What dat? Everybody involved in that industry has $$$$$folds on.

Catelli said...

Its the age-old problem, never consider the waste and how to deal with it.