Environmental activists are warning US lawmakers and consumers that the Canadian oil sands sector is an environmental disaster that is poisoning US refineries.
Ottawa - Environmental activists are warning U.S. lawmakers and consumers that the Canadian oilsands sector is an environmental disaster that is poisoning U.S refineries.
"The environmental costs of tarsand development are staggering," says a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group, in the latest salvo in a pitched public relations battle over Western Canada's resource riches.
"As the rising price of oil has made extraction from Canadian tarsands profitable, U.S. oil refinery expansions to process the extra heavy sour crude from tarsands have come to dominate the refinery landscape," says the analysis.
It notes that more than two-thirds of the expansion of U.S. refining capacity is being tailored to handle the dirtier crude oil from Alberta, as opposed to conventional oil. The analysis also estimates that tarsands capacity in the U.S. will increase by 1.9 million barrels per day, while the cleaner conventional oil refining will decrease by about 300,000 barrels per day.
The study is the latest in a series of reports targeting U.S. decision-makers to convince them to turn away from what environmental groups call "dirty oil" from Canada.
It says oilsands production results in the release of harmful pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, sulphuric acid mist and nitrogen oxide, as well as toxic metals such as lead and nickel compounds.
The report also suggests the "more intensive" process of refining oil sand "may also produce more greenhouse gas."
"I think Americans are just beginning to learn what the tarsands are," said Matt Price, a climate and energy policy expert from Environmental Defence in Canada who contributed to the report. "You are not really achieving energy security (since) by exploiting tarsands oil you are actually putting in danger your life support system, which is the climate."
But policy-makers and oil companies are fighting back, doing their best to convince an international audience that Canada is a "green energy superpower" and is responsibly managing oilsands development.
For example, Canada's top federal civil servant took his counterparts from other Commonwealth countries on a tour Saturday of some oilsands facilities in Alberta. Kevin Lynch, the Clerk of the Privy Council, charted a helicopter to ferry other senior civil servants from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand around northern Alberta.
Canwest News Service has learned that the group visited a Syncrude Canada Ltd., facility near Fort McMurray as well as a nearby First Nations reserve. The goal of the visit, said a spokesperson for Lynch's office, was to demonstrate the scope and complexity of oilsands development as well as the responsible way Canada is developing the resource. Lynch did not respond to an interview request.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper carried that same message to an international audience last week in London.
"Canada intends to be not just an energy superpower, but also a clean energy superpower," Harper told a well-heeled business crowd at a meeting of the Canada-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce.
And Harper singled out the oilsands in that speech, saying his government has taken a "get tough" approach on oilsands developers.
"Our targets (for emissions reductions) in the oilsands go beyond the standards for other industries," Harper said.
In late April, Alberta's deputy premier Ron Stevens travelled to Washington to take that message directly to members of Congress and U.S. investors.
But green groups and political opponents of the Conservative governments in Ottawa and Edmonton say international investors and policy-makers are not getting the whole story.
They say the Harper government's emissions targets will not bring about absolute reductions in emissions, but only reductions in the relative emissions per each barrel of oil produced. So, even though per-barrel pollution may be decreasing, overall greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands is estimated to triple over the next decade, according to the latest estimates from Environment Canada.
"Although a new refinery has not been built in the United States for over 30 years, five new refineries are currently under consideration."
The report notes three of the five new refineries would process tar and oil. But it warns the consequences could be devastating, highlighting a recent case of about 500 birds that died after landing on a toxic tailing pond from oilsands operations.
The analysis also identifies 17 new expansions of existing facilities and warns the changes could wipe out many trees in the boreal forest that would be cleared to make way for tarsands extraction.