The problem of the negative effects of the development of oil sand mining in Alberta, Canada, is one of the major environmental challenges which threatens not only to the future of Alberta and Canada but also to the future of the entire continent. In this respect, the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent”¯ by Andew Nikiforuk is particularly noteworthy because the author uncovers negative effects and potential threats of oil sand mining in Canada. The author has conducted an in-depth analysis of the problem of the negative environmental effects of oil sand mining in Canada, using statistical information and environmental analysis. As a result, the author arrived to the conclusion that in the pursuit of potential financial benefits and the development of energy industry in Canada can be disastrous for local and continental environment, whereas investments and governmental subsidies, which are supposed to be used for the development of oil sand mining, could have been used more effectively being invested into renewable sources of energy and green technologies.
Nikiforuk focuses his attention on the problem of the development of oil sand mining in Canada. This problem is very important because the ongoing development of oil sand mining can be extremely dangerous to the environment of the entire continent, where as the officials stand on the ground that the development of oil sand mining is essential for the national economy. In this respect, Nikiforul reveals the full extent to which the current governmental policies are erroneous. The author is very skeptical in regard to economic benefits of the development of oil sand mining in Canada. In this respect, the author critically evaluates arguments of the authorities and investors who are willing to develop oil sand in Alberta, Canada. The author stresses that the arguments of the authorities in favor of the development of oil sand mining are inconsistent. The authorities stand on the ground that oil sand mining can bring Canada new sources of energy making the national economy less dependent on imported crude oil. However, the author debunks the arguments of the government and investors and, instead, focuses on environmental effects of the development of oil sand mining in Canada.
Speaking about the development of oil sand mining in Alberta, it is necessary to underline the fact that oil sands are overlain by Alberta’s boreal forest. The boreal forest is a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees on upland sites and wetlands (Griffiths, et al., 2006, 81).
Obviously, the exploitation of the natural resources of the area represent a serious threat to the survival of these forests, while the disappearance of forests will lead not only to the change of the local landscape, but it may also result in the disappearance or, at least, the change of the wildlife in the nearby area. In other words, the development of oil sand mining inevitably leads to negative changes in the landscape, which threaten to the wildlife of Alberta. In such a situation, people will also be affected by such changes in the environment, especially if the boreal forests will disappear or will be reduced considerably.
However, the latter is not a hypothetical perspective, but it is quite probable perspective since the Mineable Oil Sands Area defined by the Alberta government is approximately 3,000 km2, an area approximately four times the surface area of the city ofĀ Calgary (Griffiths, et al., 2006, 82). Obviously, this is a large area and, what is more important, this area will be definitely affected by the development of the oil sands mining. In this respect, it is also worth mentioning the fact that the technological development of the oil sands mining implies even more significant impact on the land, landscape and wildlife. To put it more precisely, to mine the bitumen in oil sands, it is necessary to divert rivers, wetlands must be drained and all vegetation and non-oil-bearing overburden removed. In such a way, the environmental changes resulting from the oil sand mining are not only very serious and extremely negative, but, what is much more important, they are irrevocable. This means that the change of the landscape and wildlife will be dramatic and it will be impossible to recover the area even after the end of the oil sand mining in Alberta.
Basically, there are multiple environmental effects of the oil sand mining on environment and, in addition to the negative impact on land, it is possible to name the impact of the oil sand mining on the air. In this respect, it is also necessary to reveal some details of the technology of extraction and use of oils sands. To put it more precisely, there are in-situ production methods that are widely applied when bitumen deposits are buried too deep for in-pit mining to be economically recovered. These techniques include steam injection, solvent injection, and firefloods, in which oxygen is injected and part of the resource is burned to provide heat. So far steam injection has been the favored method and it is worth mentioning that some of these methods need large amounts of both water and energy.
At the same time, it is obvious that the application of these methods is accompanied by the emission of gasses and elements which may be dangerous for the environment. At any rate, it is obvious that gasses and other elements emitted in the result of the use of such methods definitely produce a negative impact on the air and change the contents of the atmosphere, misbalance it, and reduce the amount of oxygen, increase the amount of CO2 and other dangerous elements emitted in the atmosphere in the result of steaming and burning.
In this respect, it should be said that Nikiforuk argues that oil sands projects are the major emitters of many chemical pollutants. Air emissions of particular importance in the oil sands include nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds (Nikiforuk, 2008, 135). All these emissions contribute to smog, have potential human health impacts and they may be contributors of acid rains. In such a way, it is obvious that the air pollution is a result of the oil sand mining and, what is more important, the air pollution is dangerous not only to the environment but also to the health of people. In actuality, it is obvious that the continuation of the use of the existing methods will lead to the further deterioration of the environmental situation in the result of the growing air pollution.
At the same time, it is necessary to remember that along with the destruction of the boreal forest, the air pollution aggravates the situation dramatically because the atmosphere becomes more and more polluted, while its natural recovery is practically impossible because of the deforestation of the area. Consequently, it is obvious that the impact of the oil sand mining on land and air is closely intertwined and it is absolutely negative.
Another problem that is particularly disturbing from the environmental point of view is the use of water in the process of extraction of bitumen and oil production from oil sands. In this respect, it should be said that the water is basically used on the stage of the separation of bitumen from sands. The separation takes place in separation cells. Hot water is added to the sand, and the resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated. The combination of hot water and agitation releases bitumen from the oil sand and causes tiny air bubbles to attach to the bitumen droplets that float to the top of the separation vessel, where the bitumen can be skimmed off. Further processing removes residual water and solids.
However, in the result of such technological procedures, the problem of the further use of the water arises. In fact, the water that was used in the processing and extraction of bitumen is definitely polluted. Consequently, it has to be recycled to be returned to nature. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that this technology needs huge amount of water. To put it more precisely, oil sand operations are large users of fresh water. As a rule, it takes 3 barrels of water and 2 tons of sand to extract and upgrade a single barrel of oil from an oil sand mine (Nikiforuk, 2008, 194). Approved oil sands mining operations are licensed to divert 349 million cubic meters of fresh water from the Athabasca River per year. However, this is expected to increase to more than 500 million cubic meters per year in the future (Schindler, Donahue and Thompson, 2007, 32).
On analyzing the perspective of such an increase of the water use, it is necessary to underline that according to recent researches winter flows in the Athabasca River have declined in recent decades and sometimes low to impact fish habitat and fish populations, yet oil sands companies are currently allowed to withdraw water even when river levels are dangerously low. In such a way, the further development of oil sands mining and increase of the use of the water represent a serious threat to the water resources of Alberta as well as the industry may affect consistently biodiversity of the area.
Finally, it is necessary to dwell upon probably the most actual environmental problem that disturbs not only people living in Canada but all people in the world, the problem of the climate change. As it has been already mentioned above, the extracting of bitumen needs not only the large amount of water, but also a large amount of energy. The latter is generated on the basis of the use of conventional technologies, which are dangerous for the environment and, moreover, which stimulate the global warming through the creation of the greenhouse effect resulting in the global climate change. In addition, oil sands mines operations are the major emitters of greenhouse gasses. For instance, Syncrude’s and Suncor’s oil sands mining operations are Canada’s 3rd and 6th largest emitters of greenhouse gasses respectively.
As a result, the further development of the oil sands mining is more likely to increase the negative impact of the industry on the climate change and increase the emission of greenhouse gasses. In such a situation, it is obvious that the development of the industry is extremely dangerous not only for the local environment, but also for the general situation in global terms, because the climate change is a global problem.
Eventually, Nikiforuk arrives to the conclusion that the development of oil sand mining in Canada is disastrous not only for Canada but also for the entire continent because destructive environmental effects of sand oil mining will undermine the natural balance within the continent, whereas, in a long-run perspective the negative environmental effects of oil sand mining in Canada can affect the entire world.
The arguments of Nikiforuk are persuading and readers cannot help from supporting his claim to stop oil sand mining in Canada and focus on the development of green technologies and wider use of environmentally friendly, renewable sources of energy. In this respect, it is quite remarkable that the author draws statistical data to show costs of investments in the development of oil sand mining in Canada to show that investments and state subsidies of green technologies and development of renewable sources of energy can bring more positive effects to Canada and minimize the negative impact of human activities of Canada and the entire continent. Thus, the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent”¯ by Nikiforuk is a warning to policy-makers and the public which encourages to change environmental and energy policy in Canada.