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Canada's tar sands

Christina Bergmann, Alberta, Canada / sadJuly 27, 2013

Barack Obama has said that approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the US is dependent on it not increasing greenhouse gas emissions. But the oil inside it, from Canada, could be the real problem.

In this Aug. 5, 2005 file photo, trucks carry loads of oil-laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. (AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh, File )
Image: dapd

"The water's been polluted so badly, you can't drink out of any of the creeks, or even the wells," Violet Cheecham Clarke explains. The 85-year-old is among the elders of a tribe known as Fort McMurray No. 468, in Alberta. "Nowadays, you can't even give the water to your animals."

The sprightly old lady with dark grey hair has seen the world, also having lived in Germany for some years. She's been fighting to prevent the water in her native home from getting polluted by the oil, often in vain, she says.

"I've been to an awful lot of meetings over this water business, and we never seem to get anywhere," Cheecham Clarke said. "They've had to buy drinking water here for years; it comes delivered once or twice weekly."

The Cheecham family. (Photo: Christina Bergmann)
The Cheecham family is concerned about environmental impactsImage: DW/C. Bergmann

Not many First Nation peoples have profited from the tar sands operation, which has meanwhile made the neighboring town of Fort McMurray wealthy. Corruption is everywhere, people here say. 

Water-intensive process

The tar sands were first tapped in Alberta in 1967, after it was discovered that the soil in Canada's northwest is soaked in black gold. It took several decades, however, to develop a technique cheap enough to make separating the oil from the soil profitable. The oil only makes up about 10 percent of the volume.

Generally the oil is heated to liquid by steam in underground pipes or the earth is excavated and then washed to separate the oil, as in pit mining. One thing required for both is a vast amount of water, which in this case comes from the Athabasca River.

What's left over is a sludgy mix of water, sand and bitumen, which is stored in so-called tailing ponds, for example north of Fort McMurray. The landscape there is marked by many such toxic tailing ponds, and also by huge heaps of tailings, as unwanted leftovers from mining are called.

"We're making sure that the tailings ponds are safe and that the water can be reduced so they can extract the water out of that mixture faster," said Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Sandy wasteland left after tar sands processing. (Photo: Christina Bergmann)
Sandy wasteland left over after tar sands processing, where the oil has been removedImage: DW/C. Bergmann

Stringham told DW that all the water in the tailings ponds is recycled, and not left to soak into the environment. A layer of mud seals the underside of the pond off from the water table according to Stringham.

High cancer rate

But environmental investigator Tony Boschmann doesn't believe Stringham's claims. He not only thinks that the official estimate of 2.7 barrels of fresh water usage for each barrel of oil produced is too low, he also believes the river is getting polluted.

"The chemistry of the water coming into the bottom of the river is completely different to what was in the river,'" Boschmann told DW.

Boschmann, at 53, is an expert at hunting polluters. But he said that the government has not been keen to follow up, also in this case. "We've brought it to the attention of the authorities, and we'd hoped that they would investigate this more deeply and fully," Boschmann said. "We've since realized that there's very little interest in showing anything negative in the oil sands domain."

Medical doctor John O'Connor is also concerned. He's been serving the Fort McKay area, north of Fort McMurray, for 15 years. He's also familiar with the medical situation in Fort Chipewyan, a nearby settlement accessible only by boat or plane.

The area has seen an unusually high rate of cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts in the human body. "Nobody is saying this cancer is connected with the tar sands," O'Connor said. But he pointed out that toxins have entered the environment and the food chain as the result of industrial activity upstream, and that "many of these toxins can be linked with these cancers."

Tony Boschmann. (Photo: Christina Bergmann)
Environmental investigator Tony Boschmann believes the tailings ponds are leakingImage: DW/C. Bergmann

The authorities have been absent from dealing with this phenomenon, O'Connor said. "I'm very disgusted with the lack of action, the lack of interest," he added. At the same time, he admits that Alberta in general and Fort McMurray have profited from the extraction of oil from the tar sands. There's more education than before, life expectancy is higher and also the standard of living has generally risen.

A dirty fuel

The alleged water pollution isn't the only problem with the tar sands - it's also a comparatively dirty fuel. Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers admits that per barrel of tar sands oil, six to nine percent more greenhouse gases are emitted than from oil, both light and heavy, coming into the US.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada pegged tar sands oil as a climate culprit: "Right now the tar sands are the single largest and fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada." They are also the primary reason why Canada isn't able to hold to the Kyoto Protocol of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and why the country is blocking international progress on future climate commitments, he said.

An oil sands refinery and tailings pond, outside of Alberta (Photo: Christina Bergmann)
An oil sands refinery and tailings pond, located north of Fort McMurrayImage: DW/C. Bergmann

Mining of Canada's oil sands is due to continue, to the tune of about 1.8 million barrels daily, Stringham said. That makes up almost half of Canada's total production. By 2030, production is supposed to rise to 6.7 million barrels, with the goal of this oil reaching refineries and ports in the Gulf of Mexico.

But in order for that to happen, the Keystone XL Pipeline will have to be built through the United States. At the moment, US President Barack Obama's administration is still set to make the decision on that, after environmental impact studies have been carried out.