Huge Canadian Oil Development



The Taiga Forest Network reports in econet's conference (email contact is on oil development slated for Alberta, Canada, which will significantly impact large areas of ecologically significant boreal forest. Fully 65% of intact boreal forest in Canada is under threat. "The Alberta oil sands occupy a vast area in the boreal forest zone about the size of New Brunswick. The oil sands contain approximately one third of the world's oil resources; it is estimated that some 300 billion barrels of oil are ultimately recoverable, equal to or greater than the reserves of Saudi Arabia." In Alberta, in addition to this huge oil development, the "transnational forest destroyers, Mitsubishi and Daishow" recently were given 15 percent of Alberta's land base to log.

Must all the world's forests fall before alternatives are found to oil and virgin timbers? Whether the world's forests persist through the current worldwide resource binge will have a major impact on future quality of life. The Canadian government, despite a squeaky clean environmental image, is party to the clearing of its own forest heritage, as well as involvement in proposed industrial rainforest logging in Guyana, South America. Shame on Canada.



/From Taiga News no 17/

THE BIGGEST OIL DEVELOPMENT SCHEME in the history of North America is about to commence in northern Alberta. An array of oil company consortiums and corporate investors are planning to invest $25 billion over the next twenty years into the mining of the Alberta oil sands.

The oil sands project is the latest industrial attack on the boreal forest, which has been under siege by transnational corporate clearcutters such as Mitsubishi, Daishowa, Weyerhauser, Louisiana Pacific, Repap and others. Over 65 percent of Canada's boreal forest is under long term tenure to timber companies for the purpose of logging. The boreal forest, with its shallow soils, harsh climate and slow growing season, is especially vulnerable to the ravages of massive clearcutting and industrial development. As oil sands development accelerates, enormous areas of boreal forest will be stripped bare, excavated and turned into moonscapes, destroying carbon sinks, damaging biodiversity and substantially increasing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Alberta environmentalists are calling on the federal government to include assessments of oil and gas export projects in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.


The boosterism of the Alberta media, spurred on by a public relations onslaught by the oil industry, touting the myriad of benefits Albertan society will reap from the oil sands has created a climate of near hysteria. If one is to believe all the "Happy Days Are Here Again" hype coming out of Wild Rose Country, the miraculous oil sands are going to bring about everything from world peace to a cure for the common cold.

The oil industry demanded and were given major tax breaks and sweetheart royalty regimes by the Alberta provincial government and the Canadian federal government for oil sands development. Under a new royalty regime recently announced by the province, companies will pay a one percent royalty on all oil sands production in yet another larger-than-life Alberta style natural resource give-away. Remember, this is the same province where two of the most infamous transnational forest destroyers, Mitsubishi and Daishowa, were basically handed over an area of boreal forest amounting to 15 percent of the entire land base of Alberta.

One dissenting voice of reason in the federal government has been Charles Caccia, Member of Parliament (MP) from Toronto. Caccia has recommended in the Report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development that "the federal government refrain from injecting any additional tax assistance into oil sands development." The report further states that oil sands development is a highly polluting industry that is already the beneficiary of significant tax largesse. Caccia accurately summarizes the oil sands issue vis-a-vis government subsidies with the comment that "...government assistance continues to be biased towards a polluting energy industry at the expense of energy efficiency and renewable natural resources." Caccia's call for environmental sanity has been drowned out at the federal level by Minister of Natural Resources Anne McClellan.


The Alberta oil sands occupy a vast area in the boreal forest zone about the size of New Brunswick. The oil sands contain approximately one third of the world's oil resources; it is estimated that some 300 billion barrels of oil are ultimately recoverable, equal to or greater than the reserves of Saudi Arabia. The oil industry claims that the oil sands reserves hold enough recoverable oil to supply Canada for 200 years. Industry estimates also claim that by the year 2020, the oil sands will be producing as much as 1.2 million barrels a day, a significant amount of which will be exported to the U.S. market.

The profligate consumption of natural resources by the U.S., Japan and western Europe continues to drive the destruction of Canadian wilderness. International trade agreements such as the FTA, NAFTA and GATT will force Canada to feed the seemingly insatiable American, Japanese and European appetites for pulp, timber, oil, natural gas, etc. For example, Article 409 of the FTA states that with regard to natural resources, if Canada for whatever reason declares a shortage, it cannot impose restrictions on exports to the United States.

Not surprisingly, the development of additional pipeline capacity to the U.S. market is in the works. Alberta environmentalists have raised questions about the environmental impacts of the proposed "Express Pipeline," as it is planned to be routed through native prairie grasslands, a highly threatened ecosystem supporting more than 100 endangered species in Alberta. The company behind the pipeline project, the Alberta Energy Company, says the Express Pipeline is needed to provide an impetus for further oil sands development.


A report by conservation biologist Brian Horejsi of Western Wildlife Environments Consulting details the staggering scope of habitat fragmentation currently in Alberta from oil and gas development: in total over 225,000 wells have been drilled to date; 1.5 million kilometers of seismic road access have been cut; 750,000 kilometers of all-weather road access built; and 500,000 kilometers of pipeline right-of-way cut, none of it subjected to provincial or federal environmental impact assessment. The existing threats to ecosystem integrity and the ecology of wildlife populations from widespread oil and gas development will only be exacerbated by the oil sands mega-projects.

The oil sands are located at various depths, from surface outcroppings to several hundred meters below the ground. Reserves at or near the surface are recovered using large scale strip mining techniques. Huge mounds of oil sand are excavated and moved by gargantuan trucks to extractors, where the material is heated until the sand separates from the oil. About 85 percent of the oil sand is sand and the rest is oil. It takes two tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil.

Since opening its operation in 1978 one company, Syncrude, has excavated 1.5 billion tons of so-called overburden, the 20 meters deep layer of muskeg, gravel and shale that sit atop the actual oil sands. More soil has been excavated by Syncrude than from the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the 10 biggest dams in the world combined. Syncrude has possibly created the largest surface mine in the world.


The deeper oil sands reserves are recovered by drilling horizontal wells and injecting massive amounts of steam far into the ground. Using this method of extraction, it takes nine barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. Alberta environmentalists report that a Shell Canada oil sands plant has dried up one lake and has lowered the level of another lake so low that it froze solid, killing all the fish. Shell is currently taking enormous amounts of water from the Peace River for its oil sands production. There is serious concern as to what the long term adverse environmental impacts of the steam injection process (with its immense water requirements) will be on boreal hydrology. "The drying up of the boreal from oil sands development and processing, combined with global warming and increased fire patterns, will transform the boreal forest into a huge carbon bomb," says Gray Jones, Executive Director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee's Alberta Branch.


Oil sands development will directly affect indigenous peoples in the boreal forest, overlapping upon much of the 10,000 square kilometer unceded traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree. The Lubicons are already struggling to preserve their boreal forest homeland from industrial forestry, conventional oil and gas development and the underhanded political machinations of the provincial government. In the rush to accelerate the mass exploitation of the oil sands, the potentially devastating impacts on the Lubicon Cree people and their traditional lands aren't even an after thought.


The aforementioned examples of Syncrude and Shell are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is to come. Oil sands development produces four times more upstream greenhouse gas emissions than does conventional oil reserves. The oil sands are already the biggest single emitter in Alberta of sulphur dioxide, a component of acid rain and greenhouse gases. Alberta emits 500,000 tons of sulphur dioxide annually . Petroleum operations in Alberta and nearby parts of British Columbia constitute the second largest source of sulphur emissions in North America, next to the industrial regions of Eastern Canada and the United States. A draft report by the province's environmental research center disclosing the harm being caused to domestic livestock from prolonged sulphur dioxide exposure is being suppressed by the Alberta government because of oil industry pressure and a fear that it could affect beef exports. The controversial report also reveals that the oil industry practice of spreading drilling wastes on land used to grow cattle feed can expose the animals to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury. The report goes on to state that "humans who eat beef may then be exposed to high concentrations of toxic substances."


So what has been the response of the far right Alberta provincial government? Premier Ralph Klein's solution has been to slash the budget for the provincial Environment Department. In the next three years the Klein government will cut 500 jobs from the department and reduce the department's budget by $164 million. The Environment Department's staff has been cut 1,360 positions since 1992. In addition, Klein has announced that the oil industry will essentially be handed over responsibility for the monitoring of emission levels in water and the atmosphere. Sounding like Big Brother in Orwell's 1984, Klein says that as a result of his budget cuts and deregulation, Alberta will see more environmental protection, not less. This is an integral part of the "Alberta Advantage," Klein's ongoing strategy of rolling out the red carpet to big business.


Aside from being important carbon sinks, it is believed that boreal forests also store vast amounts of frozen methane in the permafrost zone, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. When boreal forests are clearcut, the micro climate is affected. Changes in micro climate can affect regional climate. Loss of forest cover and higher temperatures have the potential to thaw and cause retreat of the boreal's frozen peat lands, releasing methane. The more methane released, the warmer the climate becomes, and the more northward shift of the permafrost zone. Even a warming of one degree celsius has the potential to eradicate 25 percent of the boreal forest. Climatologists forecast the boreal forest will be reduced by 50 to 90 percent in the next century, being widely eliminated west of James Bay. Given this scenario, one has to wonder if the development of the oil sands will be the final nail in the coffin of Alberta's great boreal forest.



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