Tag Archives: tailings pond

More Ducks Land on Oil Sands Leases – News Sources You Should Follow

Well, the investigations are under way and the information is slowly making it’s way out about landings by waterfowl on multiple oil sands sites.

News sources to follow while this story continues to evolve are:

And while not a link to a news source, here is a link to the Federal Migratory Bird Act (if you were interested).

From a communications perspective, it’s going to be interesting to see how industry, government, non-government and the public react.

From a political/policy/regulations perspective, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

From my own personal point of view, this sucks.

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Did I miss some news sources you think should be on the list? Let me know, post a comment below or grab me on Twitter at @myoilsands

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$3 Million in Penalties to Syncrude Over 2008 Waterfowl Incident

 

Injured Duck on Syncrude Site

oiled duck - photograph by Todd Powell, property of EdmontonJournal.com

 

So if you’ve been paying attention to oil sands / energy industry / business / environmental news today, you’ll more than likely have heard Syncrude Canada Ltd. has been ordered to pay roughly $3 million in fines due to the Waterfowl incident in 2008 where approximately 1,600 ducks died on a tailings pond.

I’m not going to get into specifics, but you can read more about the fines from Canadian Business and from our own Fort McMurray Today.

Impact on Wildlife needs perspective

I would however like to point you to a post I did in April entitled “[Insert Bird Pun Here]: Oil Sands and Wildlife“. In it, I take a quick look at how two different areas in how they impact wildlife: the buildings we construct, and the vehicles we drive.

 

Impact Imprint

impact imprint - courtesy of Janet 59

 

I look at things like how just three buildings in Scarborough, Ontario, have killed over 7,000 birds in 10 years. Three buildings, 82 species, 7,000 birds dead.

How come Greenpeace hasn’t flown European zealots over to Scarborough to scale the buildings, raise a banner, and then get arrested? (A simple answer might be this: money)

Anyway, I just think we need to take a broader look at how we as a species are impacting the world around us. If we talk the talk, then we need to walk the walk and demand accountability from more than just “big oil” – we need to take a look in the mirror and demand it from ourselves as consumers.

Suncor Close to “Significant Breakthroughs” Regarding Environmental Impacts

Suncor logo, property of Suncor Energy Inc.

property of Suncor Energy Inc.

The Edmonton Journal reported on April 30th that Suncor is not only investing more than a billion dollars (yes, that’s $1,000,000,000.00 +) to address environmental impacts, but that CEO Rick George is looking for “constructive dialogue on greening our economy and the energy that fuels it.”

“One of Canada’s top oil and gas companies says it’s on the verge of significant breakthroughs in addressing environmental concerns at its oilsands operations, but is calling for a serious conversation about the country’s energy strategy.” Read the full article @ the Edmonton Journal

Suncor has been working on a new tailings strategy – Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO). All signs point towards this technology playing a large part of Suncor’s plans to “significantly reduce the need for ponds to store mine tailings.” [source]

From Suncor’s Tailings Management section:

“Suncor recognizes the importance of addressing the tailings challenge associated with the development of oil sands mines. Oil sands mines produce tailings — left over material produced during the extraction process that separates bitumen from the oil sand. We have developed a new tailings technology called Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO) that’s a significant advance in tailings management and reclamation. We believe TRO will help us meet provincial regulatory requirements and, just as importantly, the changing expectations of our stakeholders.”

What are your thoughts on the matter?

What is an Open Pit Mine Anyway?

“I didn’t realize it was all above ground – I thought we’d be going underground, like in a  coal mine or something.”

That’s the reaction my sister had when I took her to visit one of the large operations north of town. So I thought I’d post about how roughly 20% of the Athabasca Oil Sands deposit is probably going to be developed.

When we mine oil sands, we’re not digging tunnels into the ground like you might find in a Disney cartoon about dwarves, or the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the one that recently and tragically claimed the lives of 29 miners. When we talk mines in the oil sands, we’re talking about open pit mines. Big holes. In the ground.

“Big Holes”

Open Pit Mine - courtesy of alexabboud

open pit mine - courtesy of alexabboud

Yes, the mines up here are big. In fact they’re quite large, large enough that you can see them from space.

But they’re also temporary. People seem to forget that.

Companies that work in the open pit mine business here in Fort McMurray region are required to reclaim all of the disturbed land. It doesn’t matter if that land had been dug up for the oil, just had a building on it, or had a road through it – if it was disturbed, they are required by law to return it to a productive, ecologically sound state.

Complex Issue

Dick and Jane - courtesy of The GC Four

courtesy of The GC Four

But before we get going, let me say that open pit mining and everything that it entails is complex. Extremely complex. I am certainly not an expert, and what you’re getting here is the “Dick and Jane” version. If you are looking for some highly technical, detailed information, let me point you to here and here.

As well, there’s all sorts of regulatory/environmental requirements that companies need to comply with before any work can proceed – it’s not like you can just go start digging away and sell the oil. If you’re interested in what the people of Alberta are asking the companies to comply with, check out the Energy Resources Conservation Board “Acts and Regulations” section or Alberta Environment’s “Oil Sands Environmental Management” section.

What Exactly Are the “Oil Sands”?

First off, we have to start with the particular matter that makes up the oil sands, and where we find it. A grain of “oil sand” is a tiny granule of sand, surrounded by a thin layer of water and minerals, which is then in turn surrounded by a thin layer of heavy oil called bitumen. In order to separate the sand, water and oil from each other, it needs to be heated up and put through a separation process.

The oil sands deposits are, for the most part, underground. The oil sands could be half a foot below ground level, or it could be several hundred feet down. A general rule of thumb is that north of Fort McMurray, the closer you are to the Athabasca river, the closer it is to the surface. In fact, the river has actually cut its way through the deposit, and in the summer months you can paddle around and see it naturally seeping into the river.

Oil sands that are closer to the surface are good candidates for open pit mining, whereas the deposits that are further down are candidates for SAGD or In-Situ processes. It is thought that roughly 80% of the oil sands deposits in Alberta will have to be developed using different techniques than open pit mining.

Open Pit Mining 101

Open pit mining basically involves digging down until you reach the oil sand deposit, mining the resource, then filling the hole back in – but it’s a little more complex than that. Chances are, as we’re getting ready to dig, there’s a few things between us and the sands: boreal forest, muskeg and overburden.

Boreal Forest - courtesy of Ben+Sam

boreal forest - courtesy of Ben+Sam

Boreal Forest – Fort McMurray is smack dab in the middle of Canada’s Boreal Forest, which account for around 3,100,00- square kilometres. In order for mining to begin, the trees need to be harvested by a forestry company – so they come in and take the trees away to be put them to good use.

Muskeg – The kind folks who contribute to Wikipedia tell us that muskegis more-or-less synonymous with bogland but muskeg is the standard term in non-Atlantic Canada and Alaska (while bog is more common elsewhere).” So the top layer is a bog-type layer, very spongy and very valuable for it holds a lot of what is needed in order to help reclaim a site.

My understanding is that the muskeg layer is either dried and stored for future reclamation use, or is moved directly to another area that is currently being reclaimed.

like a layer cake, really

like a layer cake really

Overburden – there can be several different layers of “overburden” which needs to be taken away before we get to the oil sands, but it does not go to waste. It’s either stored for later use in reclamation, or, depending upon the quality and type, it’s used in the creation of mine roads, walls and other engineering uses.

Truck and Shovels – Extremely large trucks (heavy haulers) and shovels are used in the removal of the overburden and the eventual mining of the oil sands. Chances are you’ve seen some of the footage on TV, or on YouTube, but you do not appreciate how big they are until your right down in the mine standing next to one.

Here’s a clip of some mining in action… you have to remember that each of those trucks is about as big as a two-storey house and when fully loaded can weigh over 600 tons!

Separation – The heavy haulers take the oil sands away from the shovels and mine face to dump it into a complex set of systems (crushing units, conveyer belts, pipes etc.) that will eventually separate the resource into its component parts – sand, oil, water (and minerals). While the major operators all have different techniques to do this, the process probably involves a combination of heat, water, chemicals and physical processes.

Sand, Oil and WaterNow that there are three basic products, each stream has to be handled seperately.

  • The sand is either sent out for storage, to be used later for reclamation etc., or used right away to fill other areas.
  • The oil is either upgraded and piped away to refineries, or is thinned out (bitumen is extremely viscous, so it needs to be thinned out) and sent to upgraders or refineries elsewhere.
  • The water at this point probably has fine particles, some sand and some oil  – so it’s not “clean” water by any stretch. It will be reused in the extraction process, or sent out to a settling or tailings pond where the layers are allowed to further separate. This process, using tailings ponds, is probably one of the more controversial processes, and in fact, a major announcement from Premier Stelmach was made last week (Earth Day) where the government will “get more aggressive” on eliminating tailings ponds.

Property of Syncrude Canada Ltd. Gateway Hill: This 104-hectare parcel of land is among Syncrude's most mature reclamation areas.

Reclamation – At the end of the day, when the bitumen has been collected from the leased land, the companies are required to start the reclamation process. All the buildings are removed, the roads are deconstructed, the pipes are dismantled. In fact, the companies are required to gain certification status from the Alberta Government; they “must prove the reclaimed land can sustain vegetation and wildlife similar to that before disturbance.” [source]

Why not find out more reclamation information from Canada’s largest oil sands producers?

Want to Know More?

Well, why not come to town and check it out for yourself? You can even book an oil sands tour through Fort McMurray Tourism – and the great thing about their tours is not only do you go out to see Suncor Energy’s mine site, but you also get access to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre which “presents the history, science and technology of Alberta’s Oil Sands – the world’s largest single deposit of oil.” Not bad for one ticket eh?

Can’t make it to town, but you’re interested in some online resources?  Let me Google that for you!

[Insert Bird Pun Here]: Oil Sands and Wildlife

Injured Duck on Syncrude Site

oiled duck - photograph by Todd Powell, property of EdmontonJournal.com

A lot has been made of the impact the oil sands are having on wildlife in or passing through the area. But not a lot has been made of the bigger picture.

A Bit of History

April 2008 sucked. It sucked for birds. It sucked for workers. It sucked for the industry. It sucked. It sucked a lot.

In 2008 over 1,600 birds died in a Syncrude tailings pond. The company is currently in court facing “charges under Section 5.1 of the Migratory Birds Convention Act and Section 155 under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.” [source] If you are interested, Syncrude has a dedicated Waterfowl Trial page with audio clips covering their lawyer’s responses to media outside the courtroom.

Needless to say, this regrettable incident has garnered a lot of negative press for Syncrude, the industry and the region. There are over 1,000,000 hits on Google while searching for “oilsand ducks“… the first one is a CTV article titled “Canada’s image hurt by oilsands duck deaths: PM – CTV News“.

This is a very graphic, very concentrated and very “unusual” event – in fact, it makes for a good, news story (note: *not* a good news, story). It’s interesting, it grabs the attention of the reader/viewer and people can picture it in their minds. The world has read, viewed and discussed the incident… and the scuttlebutt has not been kind.

Aside from the bird deaths, a report was recently unearthed in regards to oil sands-related wildlife deaths between 2000 and 2008:

“Documents obtained by Greenpeace, under freedom of information legislation, show that at least 164 other animals died during oil sands operations between 2000 and 2008.

Those animals included 27 bears, 67 deer, 31 foxes and 21 coyotes.” [CTV.ca]

Again, this is not looking good. No one likes to hear about animals suffering due to the industry’s impact on the environment (no matter if they died due to the actual operations on site, or other causes, which took place on site). Which is why all of the negative press around the oil sands and wildlife makes me angry – because there have been little, if any, posts, articles or feeds that bother trying to bring a balanced point of view to the topic.

Why This Post

The Toronto Star published a small piece yesterday entitled “Oil industry isn’t heartless toward wildlife” – in fact, it started me musing about this post… because when we look at how other industries or practices impact wildlife, the numbers in the oil sands aren’t looking so horrific. Specifically, let’s quickly look at two other areas: Buildings & Vehicles

What About A Clear Picture (Window)?

Impact Imprint

impact imprint - courtesy of Janet 59

A  large source of wildlife deaths are the buildings we live and work in. For instance, there is one particular complex in Scarborough, the office buildings at 100-300 Consilium Place, that is considered a “death trap” for birds.

The Toronto Star reported on March 9, 2010, that:

“In 2008-2009, more than 800 birds were recovered from the lawns around the complex, ironic considering it was awarded a “Go Green certificate of achievement” for its environmental practices by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Toronto. Go Green certificates are most commonly awarded for energy efficiency.

Over the past decade, more than 7,000 birds of 82 species have met painful deaths after flying into what bird safety advocate Michael Mesure calls ‘the most reflective glass windows of any building in the city.'”

So let’s look at that again: over 7,000 birds have died. From just 3 buildings. 3 buildings, 10 years, 82 species, 7,000 birds. Where is the international outrage? Where are the calls from Europe demanding environmental justice? Where are the protesters repelling down the sides of the buildings unfurling banners?

This is but one example of how buildings are impacting our friends in the sky. Just imagine how many similar buildings dominate the skylines of Canada’s major cities… how many birds have met the same fate across our country? Across the contient? Across the developed world?

An Object in Motion….

Speed Kills Bears

"speeding kills bears" - courtesy of Genista

Let’s take a look to see how the vehicles we drive impact wildlife. I’m not going to get into any environmental impacts, or migration impacts etc. I’m only going to look at what happens when an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Let’s look at vehicle/animal collisions.

First up is Ontario, and how many animals are reported to be involved in vehicle collisions.

In 2007, 13,954 collisions were reported. Many more go unreported.” And those are just the reported numbers. 13,954 collisions. That works out to an average of one collision every 38 minutes on the roads of Ontario. [source]

According to statistics from the Government of Alberta’s Transportation Ministry, about 11% of all reported traffic collisions in 2005 involved wildlife. In 2008, the Transportation Ministry reported that there were over 158,000 reported collisions. If the 11% trend holds true, then that suggests close to 17,000 animals were involved.

Now, staying within my home province of Alberta, 17,000 animals were involved in reported traffic collisions in 2008. Compare that to the 1,764 animals that were killed due to oil sands operations over a span of 9 years (2000 to 2008). 17,000 animals over one year vs. 1,764 animals over 9 years. Think about that.

Just Two Examples

I’m just pointing out two examples here. I would encourage any reader who is interested in our impact on wildlife to look into the numbers for other industries like air travel, agriculture, alternative energy… and that’s just the A’s, I haven’t gone through the rest of the alphabet. Do some research, I am sure you will be surprised at the numbers behind other industries or practices.

It’s just too bad that the message about the oil sands hasn’t included a more complete picture.