Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Naphthenic Acid - Want to drink a glassful?

In yesterday's Montreal Gazette, this article appeared regarding actions recently taken by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development. Apparently, the Committee had spent the past 18 months investigating water pollution resulting from oil sands operations in Alberta going so far as to travel to Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray to interview witnesses. At their June 17th meeting, it was decided that all copies of the report, both electronic and printed, would be destroyed, never to see the cold, hard light of day again.

Here's a screen cap of the Standing Committee's website showing the missing report:

Here's a screen cap of the minutes of the June 17th, 2010 meeting of the Standing Committee where they made the decision to cease the study of the oil sands in relation to Canada's water resources and that all circulated copies of confidential draft report be destroyed, save one, which will be kept on file for any member of the Committee to consult later (as if they will). Unfortunately, the meeting which took nearly one and a half hours to complete has very little information of use from this copy of its Minutes so we have no meaningful record of what took place and which MPs took positions recommending destruction of the study and which ones took positions supporting the study's publication. I guess national security could have been threatened had the detailed information from the meeting been allowed to leak to the public.

For the record, here are the members of the Committee: Scott Armstrong (Conservative), James Bezan (Conservative), Bernard Bigras (BQ), Blaine Calkins (Conservative - Alberta), Linda Duncan (NDP - Alberta), David J. McGuinty (Liberal), Christian Ouellet (BQ), Francis Scarpaleggia (Liberal), Justin Trudeau (Liberal - who was not present), Mark Warawa (Conservative), Jeff Watson (Conservative) and Stephen Woodworth (Conservative). I count 6 Conservatives, three Liberals, two Bloc Quebecois and one NDP member which makes the government to opposition split even. I also noted that two of the members were from Alberta.

According to Conservative MP James Bezan, Chair of the Committee, MPs were unable to agree on the final report but he doesn't state (in the Canwest report) exactly what they didn't agree on and who took what stance on cancellation or publication of the report. Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia has his own ideas on where the fickle finger of fate should point; he blames the Conservative government (as would be expected) for a lack of leadership on the oil sands and water file. Reading between the lines, it would appear that the six Conservative members voted against releasing the report. Apparently, Mr. Scarpaleggia is working on his own report on the matter based on evidence he heard while on the Committee.

According to the Canwest News Service article, the government, through Environment Canada, is currently categorizing industrial substances that could be toxic; it appears that they have excluded naphthenic acid, a byproduct of oil sands operations, from their "no-no" list at this time. The substance is now on a medium watch list and its status could change. It is felt that this may have been one of the sticking points that triggered the destruction of 18 months of "work" by the Committee.

Naphthenic acids are naturally present in the bitumen found in the tar sands of Northern Alberta as well as in conventional oils. They are one of the most significant environmental toxins resulting from the process of removing bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands. The toxin becomes dissolved and its concentration increased in the hot water used for processing the sand; water in the tailings ponds has concentrations of napthenic acids 100 times greater than background levels. Naphthenic acids are highly toxic to aquatic species, including microorganisms that are present in a river or wetland; repeated exposure can cause liver and brain damage. It is the primary reason why the water used in the tar sands processing cannot be discharged straight into the environment. Naphthenic acids are also persistent in the environment as they do not readily break down and can take decades to degrade. As well, because of its persistence, it can accumulate in fluvial sediments, being released during flooding events. Scientists at the National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada admit that ..."the general knowledge of environmental persistence, the occurrence and fate of napthenic acids have been sparsely studied.".

It would seem that the actions of the Standing Committee on the Environment are at least a bit suspect and they owe it to Canadians who have funded this boondoggle for 18 months an explanation as to why publication of the report was cancelled and at whose behest the investigation was ended.

In case you are interested in reading further, here's a fascinating report on the oil sands tailings ponds by Environmental Defence.


  1. Ignorance is bliss. If we really paid attention, if we really knew what was going on, we'd be screaming bloody murder.

  2. Scientists at the National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada admit that ..."the general knowledge of environmental persistence, the occurrence and fate of napthenic acids have been sparsely studied.".

    Really? but these acids are a known "contaminant" in all crude oil processes and are responsible for much of the corrosion observed by industry in their refineries. Seems like such a money problem would (or perhaps should?) be better studied than indicated in the quote...

  3. We'd probably all have to be locked up and the key thrown away. Either that, or there would be complete anarchy if the Black Block types really got carried away.

  4. Wondering if you've heard anything else on this topic? I understand there is a request to put NA on the NPRI, and also the Alberta government is talking about it's increased environmental testing for this toxin.