Canada: Secret government memo warns tar sands damage may be irreversible

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Over the coming decade, emissions growth from the Alberta tar sands is projected to be greater than all other Canadian economic sectors combined


by Mike De Souza
Calgary Herald, February 21, 2012

Collateral damage from Canada’s booming oilsands sector may be irreversible, posing a “significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta,” says a secret memorandum prepared for the federal government’s top bureaucrat.

The memorandum, released by the Privy Council Office through access to information legislation, also raises doubts about recent industry and government claims that oilsands companies are reducing heat-trapping gases produced by each barrel of oil.

The industry has suggested that a shift in oilsands extraction to use steam to remove synthetic crude oil from natural bitumen deposits on site can reduce land disruption and provide for reductions in energy and emissions. But the memo, prepared for Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council Office – the lead department in the federal government’s bureaucracy – said this shift is actually accelerating the industry’s impact on climate change, with emissions growth projected to be greater over the next decade than all other Canadian economic sectors combined.

“While the industry has taken steps to reduce emissions, the shift from mining to in situ production, which is almost three times as emissions intensive as mining, is resulting in a continued acceleration of emissions from this sector,” said the memo.

The memo, marked “secret,” was prepared for Wouters in advance of a discussion that was to be held on March 10, 2011, with representatives from energy companies Suncor, CNRL and Encana, as well as academic stakeholders. It suggested the so-called tailings ponds of toxic waste from oilsands mining could permanently damage Alberta’s landscape.

“While the industry has taken steps to recycle water and collaborate on the development of innovative tailings management technologies, at this point in time, it is far from clear that tailings ponds can be adequately restored,” said the memo, obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.

“Other environmental issues, such as the loss of wetlands and habitat, also exist and pose a risk to the ecological integrity of the oilsands region. At present the cumulative impacts of oilsands development are not adequately understood.”

The memo was released with other internal correspondence about the energy sector, including a memorandum prepared for Prime Minister Stephen Harper that was signed by Wouters, warning that the European Union is “moving forward” with plans to “single out the oilsands” in climate change legislation designed to reduce emissions from the continent’s transportation sector.

When asked if it informed Harper about controversy surrounding the CERA research, Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet said he was “not able to share advice to the PM as this information is confidential.”

The oil-and-gas industry has stressed that new technologies are allowing some operations to dramatically improve performance when compared to the first few decades of industrial activity in the oilsands, commonly associated with major land disruption as well as heavy consumption of water and energy.

For example, Calgary-based Cenovus Energy Inc. has said three of its operations use less steam than its competitors and, as a result, offer an environmental performance that would meet stringent climate-change standards for fuel in the state of California.

Canada’s oilsands sector produces an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. The Canadian Energy Research Institute, a collaboration among industry, government and academics, estimates that the sector is responsible for more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in Canada, and will contribute more than $1.7 trillion to the country’s economy over the next 25 years.

The memo to Wouters noted the oilsands sector extracted six billion barrels in its first 40 years of commercial production, from 1967 to 2007, while it is expected to match that total production in the coming decade. It said this rapid growth “has shed light on the significant environmental challenges associated with this economically important sector,” including the greenhouse gas emissions, tailings management, and habitat degradation and loss.


  • Dear Mr. President:

    Like some of my friends who you have seen arstreed at the gates to the White House, I am opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline. It is a danger to human health. The tar sands project already compromises the water supply of First Nations peoples in Alberta.

    The pipeline would extend that danger to the Ogallala aquifer and the health of my neighbors in Nebraska.

    Compromised water quality is not the only health risk.Because the extraction of tar sands uses more energy than normal drilling, the process releases excessive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change. My colleagues in Climate Change Lobby, in Iowa and across the nation, Republicans and Democrats alike, know tht climate change is an ever increasing risk to human health. The pipeline would vastly expand development and extraction of tar sands oil and be a deadly contributor to green house gases. These risks do not target liberals or conservatives, libertarians or socialists. Nor are they risks only to other species or distant people and places.

    We believe that the silent majority of Americans are confused by distorted frames of climate science debates and politicized rhetoric about an issue that knows no political divides. They we need clear information and a way forward.

    Mr. President, we need your help to build an atmosphere of public civility and the public will to address climate change as the extraordinary health hazard that it is.

    The Keystone XL Pipeline will increase the danger, distract Americans from building a necessary infrastructure of sustainable jobs, mislead Americans into thinking this oil will be, somehow, our oil and remain separate from the global market, and make our necessary race against time harder to win.

    Sincerely,Barbara Eckstein

  • Thank you for the above article, I never get tired of reading the truth. I suspect many readers feel the same way. For anyone who is interested in the so called development called the tar sands what is written in the article is known and the information being given to Harper should be obvious even to him. By his actions or lack thereof it’s obvious that he doesn’t care; he does however care about is getting re-elected and that can be threatened. Some Canadians are awakening to the reality of Harper’s anti environment stance; the question for me is how to mobilize that increasing awareness and facilitate change in government policy as unlikely as that seems. I believe we are all trying in our way to make a positive difference in the world around us; why else would we be reading Climate and Capitalism. I wonder how can we effectively do more to encourage people to believe that a healthy physical environment is more important than virtually anything else, that it is the real bottom line.