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Sierra Club Intervenes to Block New Oil Sands Project

But Alberta's regulatory body has never denied an oil sands permit before

Jul 5, 2010

The Sierra Club has appealed to the Alberta energy agency to block approval of the Joslyn North Mine, which oil giant Total Canada wants to develop.

Sheila Muxlow, director of the group's Alberta chapter, said the project is going to "take us further in the wrong direction." The Sierra Club, founded by conservation John Muir in 1892, is the oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization in North America.

The government of Alberta, Canada said it is considering Total's proposal for a massive new oil sands mine. The proposal includes establishment of another "tailings pond," a body of water the size of a small lake that stores toxic liquid leftovers of the mining process.

Total's proposal comes just days after a judge found Syncrude, the largest producer in the oil sands, guilty in the deaths of migratory waterfowl that were poisoned in one of its tailings ponds.

Total's open pit mine and tailings lake would be built near Fort McMurray in the Athabasca sands of Northern Alberta. The company says the operation would produce 100,000 barrels per day, mostly headed to consumers in the United States.

On June 25, Alberta Provincial Court Judge Ken Tjosvold issued a guilty verdict against oil sands producer Syncrude for the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on one of its 4.6-square-mile tailings lakes in August 2008. The judge said the firm failed to ensure the safety of birds under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the Federal Migratory Birds Convention Act.

The company now faces fines of up to around $750,000 in the case. The government of Alberta played down the charges. Energy Minister Ron Liepert told the Canadian media last week that "we've got bigger issues to deal with globally."

The Syncrude verdict still grabbed headlines worldwide.

"It's completely irresponsible for the government to consider another tailings proposal especially given the gaping holes that were revealed throughout the Syncrude duck trial," the Alberta chapter of the Canada's Sierra Club said in a statement

Environmental groups said the ruling highlights the danger to wildlife, land and water of a runaway oil sands boom — output could climb 40 percent in 10 years — and that Canada must do more to tame the tailings ponds.

According to Muxlow, chances are slim, however, that the verdict will bolster more enforcement of the oil sands. The pattern in Alberta is to deny environmental impacts and "try to carry on with business as usual," she told SolveClimate.

Project Headed for Approval

Total's proposal will be heard before the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), an independent agency that regulates Alberta's energy resources, on September 21. The Sierra Club had asked the firm to answer questions on the project's impact on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as Aboriginal treaty rights for the region.

The proposed mine will sit 5.5 miles from the Fort McKay First Nation community.

Total has issued a refusal to respond through its lawyers, and ERCB is moving ahead. The Sierra Club is now fighting to get intervener status in the hearing process and to hire experts to conduct independent environmental assessments.

But the odds of success remain low. So far, 100 percent of oil sands projects have been approved.

"This board has never rejected a proposal for a new tar sands project in Alberta," Muxlow said. "And they’ve been around for more than 20 years."

The group said it is now aiming to wage a campaign in the court of public opinion.

"Forty-one percent of the area that has bitumen has not been leased out. We're going to be trying to slow down this process," Muxlow said.

Toxic Ponds are Leaking

Mining the sticky bitumen of the tarry sands releases three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional crude. Industry argues that total lifecycle emissions are only about 15 percent greater because oil refined from the bitumen is of an inferior grade and releases fewer greenhouse gases when burned. Production is now at about 1.3 million barrels per day.

The environmental impact of the mining goes beyond global warming pollution. Each barrel of tar sands oil requires up to four barrels of water to extract. A sludgy waste of chemicals, clay, sand and water gets deposited into massive contaminated tailing lakes,
some of which are located on previously pristine boreal forests.

Existing tailing ponds covered around 50 square miles in 2009. The ponds are contaminated by phenols, arsenic, mercury and carcinogens. Reports have surfaced in recent years that communities exposed to the toxic water have experienced higher than expected rates of cancer and other diseases.

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