Alberta Tar Sands

“Only when the last tree had died and the last river has been poisoned…will we realize that we cannot eat money”. This is an old Cree saying that is very applicable today. Is the mining of the Alberta tar sands worthwhile, knowing its devastating effects on the environment? There are very valid points for both arguments, being them economical, political, environmental, or moral. The mining of bitumen is not something that is sustainable for the environment, or the companies involved.
Although these open-pit mines produce much of the world’s oil, people should consider paying more at the pumps rather than destroying the only world we have to live in. The tar sands in Alberta essentially benefit every country but Canada, and everyone will have to pay the price of the damage caused to the environment. Pollution is caused in the production of bitumen, as well as in its consumption. The first documented European discovery of the tar sands in the Athabasca region of Northern Alberta was made by Alexander Mackenzie in 1773. Over one hundred years later in 1899, Charles Mair and a party of Dene natives explored the Athabasca area by request of the Canadian government. 1 Mair and his party stayed at the northern fur trading post of Fort Chipewan. 1 Following his visit to the region, Mair made a very prophetic statement: “That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of Northern Canada”. 1 Commercial development of the Alberta tar sands first began in 1967 by Suncor .
The oil crisis in 1973 sparked investor’s interest in mining development in Alberta, and Herman Kahn proposed that the Canadian government begin mining the tar sands. 1 However, the Trudeau government believed that it would overheat the economy, create steel shortages, unsettle the labor market, and drive up the Canadian dollar. 1 Now, instead of Canada mining the tar sands, global companies from the United States, China, Japan, Korea, France, and Norway have invested a total of 200 billion dollars in the Alberta tar sands. These investments account for sixty percent of global oil investments. Bitumen is defined as a naturally occurring semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons.

The fields of bitumen are naturally occurring all around the Athabasca water basin. Most of the Alberta tar sands lie so deep underground that it must be removed by first separating the bitumen from the sand using steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). 1 SAGD works by using water from the Athabasca River and heating it into steam. 1 The steam is then pumped into the ground using hoses. Steam melts areas of bitumen from top to bottom, and the liquid bitumen drains from to the bottom of the pit where it can be collected. This method was created by University of Alberta chemist, Dr. Karl Clark. It was first used by Suncor in 1965. Bitumen is considered one of the world’s dirtiest oils, because of its many impurities.
1 These impurities make a complex mining system necessary. Clearly, the harsh reality of having mined all of the clean oil is that we must now mine the dirtiest. Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta has changed dramatically due to the growth of the mining industry’s presence in the tar sands. 1 The growth in the area is said to be exponential, with no chance of slowing down anytime soon. This growth has completely changed the identity of the city. Housing in Fort McMurray is scarce and expensive. 1 It is nearly impossible to live in Fort McMurray unless you work in the mines. This has destroyed small business owners in the city, because they cannot get anyone to work for them at a reasonable wage. Also, the high average family income has caused high inflation rates. The mine employees who live in the city temporarily have caused the city shortfalls in roads, schools, and health care. Although shocking, these are typical problems that face cities that experience such a large economical boom in such a short period of time.
The Canadian government has no regulations for the reclamation in the Athabasca region. 1 There is also little known as to how the diverse ecosystem of the region can ever be returned to its natural state. The wetlands that once covered the area cannot be replaced. Also, the large oil companies have not found any way to destroy the toxic waste byproducts in the tailings ponds. 1 In an effort of reclamation, 7. 5 million tree seedlings were planted in the area, but many did not survive because of the state of the soil. Syncrude spent 0. 20% of its total budget on reclamation efforts in 2005. There is estimated to be no bitumen left in forty years. The Alberta government fears that the cost of the reclamation will fall on taxpayers when the global companies leave.
This is why it is essential for hold these companies accountable for reclamation while there is still money to be made in the tar sands. Bitumen requires much more energy in production than standard crude oil. 1 Producing one barrel of bitumen takes three times as much energy as producing a barrel of crude oil, and it creates three times as many pollutants. However, bitumen only sells for half the price of crude oil. Every day, the amount of natural gas needed to heat four million homes is used to boil water into the steam needed in SAGD. 1 The mines also use as much water per year as a city of two million people. To produce one barrel of bitumen requires the excavation of two tons of earth, and three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River. 1 1. 3 million barrels are exported every day. 1 Because of the oil production, the region has some of the most polluted air on the planet. The three hundred tons of sulphur that is released into the air per day has caused Alberta’s eastern neighbor, Saskatchewan, to have recurring acid rain.
This is just another example of how the destruction caused by oil production will ripple throughout the country. The forests in the area of the Athabasca oil sands have experienced extensive clear-cutting to make room for open-pit mines. 1 It is estimated that the mining developments in the region will eventually destroy a forest approximately the size of Florida. 1 Because of the destruction of the soil, the spruce and pine trees that once covered the region will never be able to grow in the now salt-rich soil. 1 This will obviously have a detrimental effect on the wildlife in the region.
Already, the moose, deer, beaver, waterfowl, and other animals that once lived in the region are now scarce. 1 The delicate ecosystem of the area has been destroyed. The tailings ponds along the Athabasca River are used to hold the toxic waste that is produced in the production of bitumen. 1 These ponds now cover twenty-three square miles, and 400 million gallons of this toxic waste is produced daily. 1 It contains salt, phenols, benzene, cyanide, arsenic, as well as other carcinogens. 1 The tailings ponds pose a threat to wildlife that unknowingly enters the ponds believing them to be fresh water.
This reality made headlines when 500 ducks were killed in the ponds on April 28, 2008. 1 The ponds are also not properly contained. Not only to the toxins leak into the groundwater, but many of the ponds leak directly into the Athabasca River. 1 There seems to be no real solution to this problem, as not even the experts know how to properly discard the waste in the tailings ponds. Canada has no official water policy, as well as the worst record of pollution enforcement among industrialized nations. 1 The tailings ponds contaminate the water, and Suncor and Syncrude are legally allowed by the Alberta government to ump 150 pounds of arsenic into the Athabasca River per year. 1 One hundred years ago, all of the water in Alberta was potable; it must all now be chemically treated. 1 Also, twenty-three percent of Canada’s freshwater can no longer support aquatic life because of watercontamination. Already, deformed fish are being found in Lake Athabasca. 1 Fort Chipewan is downstream from Fort McMurray and the mining operations. As an aboriginal people, they eat fish and wild game from the area. 1 They also drink the water from the Athabasca River.
Five cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile duct, have been recorded in Fort Chipewan in the last five years. 1 Cholangiocarcinoma typically occurs in one in 100, 000 people. 1 In 2006, Fort Chipewan’s population was 915. 1 These statistics speak for themselves; however, the province has denied the community a thorough health study. 1 The current state of Fort McMurray is due to the exponential growth that has taken place in the city. 1 However, the city’s seemingly thriving state makes it at risk for drugs, prostitution. Nearly half of mine workers test positive in drug screening.
Therefore, most companies don’t do drug testing, because they would have nobody to work if they did. 2 The city and surrounding area have high rates of people driving while impaired, and road fatalities on Highway 63. 1 As well, the province of Alberta has the lowest voter turn-out in the country. 1 Fort McMurray has a high divorce rate, and a suicide rate thirty-one percent above the provincial average. 1 The city also has a high drop-out rate for high school students. The entire city is caught up in the money, not seeming to realize that their income is based on an unpredictable and unreliable market. The people living in Fort McMurray expect the money to keep on coming, and the people from outside of the city are only there for the money; when they’ve made the money that they went there to make, they will eventually leave. Alberta women also experience the highest level of abuse in the country. The province’s premier says that this is “the price to pay for prosperity. Unfortunately, to some degree, he’s right. ElDean Kohrs is quoted as saying that “a history of power production synonymous with boom development usually leaves behind spiritual depression, divorce, drunkenness, dissension, and death”.
The people of Fort McMurray can only hope that once the bitumen is gone, the city will not end up like the Klondike City of the gold rush. Although there are many devastating environmental effects of mining bitumen in the Alberta tar sands, the mining gives way to many opportunities for economic gain. The global demand for oil is a huge factor in why it is beneficial to mine the area. The Alberta tar sands are the world’s last remaining oil field, and have attracted sixty percent of global oil investments. 1 Although bitumen is referred to as ‘dirty oil’ it cannot be argued that all forms of oil cause some kind of environmental damage. Canada is now the second largest exporter of oil in the world. It is without doubt that the tar sands would eventually need to be mined, knowing our growing rate of oil consumption; but the rate of the growth is what has frightened people away from the idea of mining the area. Many of the large oil companies are making large strides in making better environmental choices. Suncor has reduced its water consumption by thirty percent in the last two years, and Syncrude has reclaimed twenty-two percent of its disturbed land.
The Canadian government has also spent six billion dollars on climate change projects in the last fifteen years. 1 These are positive signs showing that the ways of mining land are changing for the better. The tar sands have also prompted growth all over Alberta. All major cities in Alberta have seen substantial growth in population over the past five years, and this growth as made Alberta one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada. Bitumen mining has also had a large effect on the Canadian dollar. 1 Between 2003 and 2006, the Canadian dollar went from sixty-four cents to eighty-seven cents on the U.
S. dollar. This value is nearly parallel with the price of crude oil. Canada’s main exportation priority has become providing the United States with oil. 1 Canada is now the single larger exporter of oil to the U. S. 1 The U. S. has a high demand for oil, as U. S. citizens currently consume twenty-five percent of the world’s oil. 1 However, because of our high exportation, the Free Trade agreement is under intense scrutiny. It would seem that the agreement is no longer benefitting both countries. In summarizing the arguments, you could come to several conclusions.
You may believe that the devastating effects on the environment are not worth mining bitumen. You may believe that to stay economically strong, Canada must mine the Alberta tar sands and have high exportation to the Unites States. Morally, it is clear what is right; however, economic decisions are never easy to make. The mining has devastated the region, and it is easy for a person to say that is wrong. However, these same people would not be ok with walking to work, or with paying high prices at the pumps.
It is an ethical dilemma that faces the people today, between what we know is right, and what we are willing to go without. It is undeniable that the argument for the thesis is much stronger, but it may not have much validity to people concerned with the economy. The mining of bitumen is not sustainable, and will eventually recreate the identity of northern Alberta. 1 We can conclude that mining the Alberta tar sands has a detrimental effect on the environment that will eventually affect the entire world. “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”-John Muir.

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