At a 2006 symposium in Banff, Alberta, four Canadian engineers revealed that another tar-sands dyke was leaking naphthenic acids, trace metals, and ammonium into local groundwater. In the same year Alberta officials admitted at a public meeting that they hadn't yet coordinated efforts to "understand potential regional impacts on groundwater." Seepage from these man-made toxic lakes along the Athabasca River is creating a unique kind of wetlands. Although cattails and hummock grass thrive in the effluent, a 1999 study in the journal Ecological Applications found that indigenous fish were "unable to survive in wetlands containing tar-sands effluent." Tadpoles died or grew slowly. Useful plants, such as tomatoes, clover, and loblolly pine, which have been planted experimentally, just won't germinate in the toxic marshes.
Although industry promises to turn many abandoned mines into so-called lakes or some sort of poor man's forest supporting salt-tolerant trees and the odd bison, Canada's record on the reclamation of its mines is not encouraging. In 2002 the federal auditor general reported that negligent and understaffed regulators had let companies walk away from tailings full of arsenic and cyanide at abandoned mine sites throughout the north. "The financial burden of dealing with the legacy of northern abandoned mines is huge," the auditor general added, "and the federal government has not yet come to grips with it."
The Alberta government, which holds less than half a billion dollars in security bonds for $100 billion worth of mines, admits that its plan for reclamation is a work in progress: "Reclamation guidelines and a land capability evaluation system for reclaimed [tar] sands landscapes are currently under development and review."
The federal government, which stands to collect nearly $51 billion (Canadian) in taxes from the tar sands by 2020, hasn't bothered to do a comprehensive impact assessment on the project. Neither has Alberta, which will take in $44 billion in tar revenues over the same time period. In 2000 both governments offloaded that responsibility to a 44-member group, drawn largely from multinational corporations, called the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA).
CEMA's latest director, John McEachern, an amiable fellow who arrived from a job in Egypt as a national park administrator in the summer of 2006, explained that the association is composed of several working groups that are looking at surface water, reclamation, air pollution, and ecosystems. The groups all work on a consensus basis, so if industry doesn't want something studied, it doesn't get studied. Even though the rapid pace of tar-sands development astonishes McEachern ("It appears to me that the Alberta government hasn't done any deep thinking about the speed"), he admitted that CEMA isn't monitoring groundwater -- or tackling climate change. "It's not on the list," he said.
It's a serious omission, since the tar sands now represent Canada's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. An open-pit mine and its accompanying upgrader, which converts bitumen into lighter crude by either removing carbon or adding hydrogen, spew out as much greenhouse gas in a day as 1.35 million cars. Yet a string of policy initiatives by successive governments in Ottawa have failed to reduce emissions nationally by any meaningful measure.
Although the current government proposes to reduce the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions in the tar sands by 40 percent by 2020, this approach will allow new mines to increase total carbon pollution by 248 percent above 2000 emission levels. By 2020 tar-sands emissions will exceed 140 megatons and account for 15 percent of all Canada's emissions. This helps explain why Canada is failing to meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol. Recent government estimates suggest that in 2010, Canada will miss its Kyoto target by at least 270 megatons, or almost 30 percent. The breakneck development of the tar sands also explains why Canada's auditor general found "inadequate leadership, planning, and performance" in the country's climate change programs. At the moment only three of 49 major companies in Alberta's oil patch have any plans to deal with carbon emissions or global warming.
CEMA's Sustainable Ecosystems Working Group, meanwhile, has posted only one document on wildlife; the subject was toads. Yet a 2006 study ("Death by a Thousand Cuts") by the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based energy watchdog, reported that woodland caribou populations around current in situ developments have crashed by 50 percent in the last decade, and that fur-bearing animals and boreal songbirds will decline by 80 percent in industrialized tar-sands landscapes. The paper concluded that in situ projects alone would "push many species over the brink."
The association's avoidance of groundwater issues is also alarming. In situ thermal operations, which inject steam into underground formations of bitumen, typically draw their water from fresh or salty aquifers. But these operations are growing so quickly that industry now uses three times more water than the government ever predicted. Many of the oil-bearing geologic formations lie beneath shallow aquifers and wetlands. In a comprehensive 2005 study for the Alberta Energy Research Institute, independent consultant Bruce Peachey noted that in situ projects could create such huge voids in the ground that water from shallow aquifers and surface wetlands could fill them on a "mega scale." If this happened, Peachey concluded, it would either compromise the environment or diminish energy supplies (and the revenues they bring).
So CEMA's performance to date has been underwhelming. "They've spent heroic sums of money and have been very reticent to share information," says a prominent ecologist who formerly worked for CEMA and who requested anonymity. "A lot of their studies are absolute s**t. Some read like the [tar] sands are nirvana and everything is a win, win, win. The fundamental issues have been ignored."
Neither Canadian political leaders nor the Canadian media have talked much about the fundamentals of water, trees, or carbon in Alberta. But the federal government has excitedly championed the fact that the tar sands will contribute nearly a trillion dollars to the nation's gross domestic product by 2020 and boost the continent's energy security. Tar-sands CEOs typically describe the megaproject as "an anchor of prosperity that has drawn interest and inspired the hopes of opinion-shapers and policy makers all over the world." Some U.S. analysts, such as Frederick Cedoz at the Global Water & Energy Strategy Team, a Washington, D.C.-based advisory group, even claim that "Canadians have proven that, with patience, the brightest minds and a little bit of money can tackle the toughest energy challenges."