Sierra Club Intervenes to Block New Oil Sands Project

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

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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.

"At present we’re seeing at least 11 million liters of wet tailings leached into the Athabasca River each day," Muxlow said. 

Companies are under a February 2009 directive, called Directive 74, by the ERCB to move to dry tailings. The goal is turn 50 percent of the existing tailings into solid matter by June 2013.

Muxlow called the rule "toothless."

"It is a voluntary directive," she said. "There is no means of reprimand for companies who do not follow this directive."

Three new tailings lakes for projects have been approved in recent months by the ERCB, Muxlow said, "despite the fact that they don’t meet the directive."

Syncrude is the largest oil sands producer in Canada, but the super majors are boosting their share of the growing economic pie, including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. For its part, Total Canada declares that over the next 10 years, it will make a $15 billion to $20 billion capital investment into Alberta’s oil mining industry.

All the companies say they are experimenting with various dry tailings technologies.

Industry Set to Soar

The unconventional oil sands of northern Alberta are the largest source of crude outside the Middle East.

A new report released on June 9 by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecasts massive growth. Production will leap to to 2.2 million barrels per day in 2015 and 2.9 million barrels in 2020, it said, even as the industry runs into environmental opposition.

The U.S. will remain Canada’s biggest customer.

A recent report by Cambridge, Mass.-based IHS CERA said the Canadian oil sands are on track to become the top source of U.S. crude oil imports this year. They could make up more than a third of the nation’s oil product imports by 2030, up from four percent today, the report stated.

Key to that growth is a massive new $12 billion pipeline under review by the federal government.

The Keystone XL Pipeline would carry the crude 2,000 miles from Alberta to the Texas coast. But the project is not cast in stone. It came under fire last week after 50 members of Congress issued a letter against its approval, saying the line would do undue environmental harm.

The State Department’s public comment period on its draft environmental impact statement of the pipeline just closed.

In a letter that was rejected by the Washington Post and published on the website of the Province of Alberta on Friday, Premier Ed Stelmach fired back. He called Canada a "great" ally in the fight for American energy security.

"A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day."

See also:

50 Members of Congress Warn State Dept Against Rubberstamping 2,000-Mile Oil Sands Pipeline

Permit for Canada-Texas Oil Sands Pipeline under Extra Scrutiny

Shareholders Vote on BP’s Plan to Move into Canadian Oil Sands

Dirty Oil Video: Canada’s Tar Sands Explained

Report Warns Oil Sands Investors of Toxic Wastewater’s Financial Risk

Canadian Fund Warns of Sticky Risks in Tar Sands Investment


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