Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How the Alberta Government Views Oil Sands Development

Updated January 2014

The approval of Shell Canada's Jackpine Project in Northern Alberta by the Alberta Energy Regulator provides us with some interesting insights into how the Alberta and Federal governments view the impact of continually growing oil sands development.

The 413 page report authored by the Joint Review Panel established by the Federal Minister of the Environment and Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board reviewed Shell Canada's request to increase its oil sands production at its Jackpine Mine by 15,900 cubic metres per day (100,000 barrels of oil per day).  This would require the building of additional processing facilities, other infrastructure and would increase the area mined.  Shell expects that it will recover 325 million cubic metres of dry bitumen (2.044 billion barrels of oil) over the mine's 40 year life 

Here is the Panel's final decision:

"The Panel notes that the Project is in an area that is nearly surrounded by other oil sands mines and in which the government of Alberta has identified bitumen extraction as a priority use. The Panel further notes that Shell’s application is for an expansion of an existing oil sands mine project. The Project would provide significant economic benefits for the region, Alberta, and Canada. Although the Panel finds that there would be significant adverse project effects on certain wildlife and vegetation, under its authority as the AER, the Panel considers these effects to be justified and that the Project is in the public interest."

"The municipal, provincial, and federal governments will all receive significant financial benefits as a result of the Project. The Project will provide major and long-term economic opportunities to individuals in Alberta and throughout Canada, and will generate a large number of construction and operational jobs."

Now, that they've given their approval, here are a few details about the environmental impact of Shell Canada's proposed expansion:

"The Panel finds that the Project would likely have significant adverse environmental effects on wetlands, traditional plant potential areas, wetland-reliant species at risk, migratory birds that are wetland-reliant or species at risk, and biodiversity. There is also a lack of proposed mitigation measures that have been proven to be effective. The Panel also concludes that the Project, in combination with other existing, approved, and planned projects, would likely have significant adverse cumulative environmental effects on wetlands; traditional plant potential areas; old-growth forests; wetland-reliant species at risk and migratory birds; old-growth forest- reliant species at risk and migratory birds; caribou; biodiversity; and Aboriginal traditional land use (TLU), rights, and culture. Further, there is a lack of proposed mitigation measures that have proven to be effective with respect to identified significant adverse cumulative environmental effects." (my bold)

In addition, the Panel noted that, while Shell will ultimately attempt to reclaim the lands involved, they admit that this eventual reclamation will not mitigate all of the effects of the mining process, particularly in the case of peatlands which take centuries to develop.  Over 10,000 hectares of unreclaimable wetlands will be destroyed, the home for many migratory birds and species at risk.  Even the Panel admits that the impact on these species could be "potentially irreversible".  Of these 10,000 hectares at risk, approximately 85 percent are peatlands.    Interestingly, the destruction of peatlands can release massive volumes of greenhouse gasses; peatlands are extremely carbon-rich and contain twice as much carbon as the entire forest biomass of the world.  Currently, the destruction of peatlands releases about two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually out of the global total of 31.6 gigatonnes (2011 data) or 6 percent of the world's annual total.  For your illumination, here is a map showing how widespread peatlands are throughout Northern Alberta with the areas in red having the greatest areal coverage of peat, suggesting that this will be an ongoing issue as oil companies look to expand oil sands production:

The Panel notes that the new project area will not support traditional plants (including old growth forest) for several generations after they are destroyed and that traditional plants may never re-establish because they occur on wetlands that cannot be reclaimed.

The Panel noted that setting aside other lands (conservation offsets) would help mitigate the impact of Shell's mining and processing activities, however, Shell Canada and oil other companies did not propose and historically have not supported the use of conservation offsets.  As such, the Panel tossed this idea into the laps of the Alberta and Canadian governments and will leave it up to them to determine whether or not conservation offsets are necessary.

In my opinion, here is one of the most interesting paragraphs in the report:

"With regard to the prediction of significant cumulative effects for several key indicator resources and species at risk, the Panel has determined that the Project itself only contributes incrementally to some of these effects and that most of these effects result from projects and disturbances that either currently exist or have already been approved."

I guess if there are already environmental problems related to oil sands mining, what's the point of stopping now!

Once again, economic benefits trump the long-term, widespread and irreversible negative impact on the environment.  While it is interesting to read some of the more candid findings of the Panel, their ultimate decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Welcome to the world's newest petrostate.  We're open for business.

1 comment:

  1. Truly a tragedy of the adverse effects of oil production. There are far more cons than pros. What also should be researched deeper are the true costs associated with oil, from extraction to end-use. All those "hidden costs" should be taken into account which would make the economic case look less appealing. Ie health care, true remediation costs of ecosystems, etc... For those who greedily think of only dollars, there are significant costs to repair every environmental and social hardship posed by oil sands extraction and fossil fuels in general.