Open Data and Canada’s Oil Sands? Inconceivable!

A couple of years back, I explored the bizarre world of Alberta’s oil sands development and the extent to which it was being monitored by the provincial and federal governments of Canada. At the time, environmentalists everywhere were clamoring over each other as they tried to notify a thoroughly apathetic populace about the issues at stake. As an example, see Naomi Klein’s TED talk on the oil and gas industry, with the last five minutes focussing specifically on Alberta. Reports released that summer by opposition parties in the Canadian government presented an alarming view for anyone concerned about the health of the planet and its residents. Oil sands development was an ugly scene, and one that was basically being ignored by every agency that should have been deeply involved from the start.

Earlier this year, the American government decided to postpone development of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have crossed an enormous span of land from northern Alberta through to Texas. Peaceful protests online and in Washington, D.C., led to a victory of sorts for the environmental movement. Better still, this unexpected delay may have been the primary catalyst for something most welcome to Canadian citizens, considering that their government that has become notorious of late for its stinginess when it comes to providing access to the information gathered through taxpayer investments. Not only does the Canadian government now plan to increase their involvement in monitoring the environmental situation in and around the oil sands, but they are going to make its information freely accessible to anyone who wants it.

To me, this is surprising, to say the least, and a proud moment to be Canadian. Plenty of goverments, with the Americans in the lead, have been providing plenty of raw scientific and other research for free on the web for years. Canada has not participated in a similar initiative, so far as I am currently aware, despite the calls for it from its citizenry. So to make this particular information freely accessible is truly outstanding. I can’t comment on the various reports at present, as they are waiting to be read in full, but I thought it best to revisit what I had said about the topic in late 2010. So for now, I’m posting the transcript of my presentation, and the accompanying slides here.

Presentation slides (download): KINGEOFDREMES -Oil Sands and Canada’s Water Resources Presentation

OIL SANDS AND CANADA’S WATER RESOURCES

As some of you know, I worked for Environment Canada as a reference librarian over the summer [2010]. Random calls from random people; it was wonderful! One question that stuck with me, though, came in a phone call on June 26, from a rather irate fellow Albertan. At the time, she simply demanded of me the name of a report that had just been scrapped by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, which I tracked down on the House website. What I found there, though, was minimal, as you can see on the board: “Water and the Oil Sands”. An in camera discussion, where only the minutes are made available to the public, and we see here: report cancelled, scrapped, and destroyed. My search then stopped; the caller had received her information, and, telling me she had been following the issue for years, let me go. But I remained curious, and so I chose it for my topic.

The brief time that I have to speak on the subject is hardly enough to cover the entire topic of government involvement in the oil sands of Alberta. I can give only glimpses of the issues, which you see broken down here. Leakage from tailings ponds, increases in human cancer rates, deformities in fish, toxins being added into the water supply, reductions in the overall water supply, the list goes on. As it turns out, most of the information that would have been included in the report is publicly available; it was cancelled because there was no agreement between the parties on what should include. For the last week or so, the House is back discussing the issue of Water and the Oil Sands.

What, then, are the oil sands? They are Canada’s most valuable natural resource, a mess of water, sand and bitumen that can be separated and refined into the oil that so much of our world runs on. There are two techniques that we use to get at the bitumen, a thick, black, sticky mix of unruly hydrocarbons. First, open pit mining, where the sand is scooped up in a shovel, then taken to a processing plant that separates the sand and bitumen. Second, in situ, which uses high pressure steam to loosen bitumen, liquefy it, and collect it as it drips into a second bore hole. For over forty years, the oil sands have been mined in these ways. With very little government oversight.

In 2003, the Alberta oil sands were first included among Canada’s proven oil reserves. Even though only a tiny fraction of the estimates have been “proven”, Canada now claims the second-largest concentration of oil in the world. Production has been ramping up for the last decade, and new projects are proposed all the time. To give an idea …

Many of us are familiar with the images of tailings ponds, those pools of contaminated water that sit on 130 km2 of Alberta’s land surface. Tailings are by-products from the refining process used in the surface mining process. Every day, 400 million more gallons of this unusable, highly toxic water is added, the equivalent of 720 Olympic size swimming pools, and this number can only increase in the foreseeable future. Migratory birds, we know, land in these pools from time to time, with mass die-offs the end result. So, too, do tailing ponds leak into the surface water supply, whether a little at a time, or, reports suggest, in a potential flood that can take out the Athabasca River, the Mackenzie Basin, Slave Lake and so on.

The indigenous population has noticed the effects of the pollution of the rivers and the air, and have complained about the water quality as well as the poor state of the fish that make up a big part of their economy. While the fish suffer deformities and feminization, human cancer rates have blossomed in the area, with 30% higher probabilities of certain types of cancer than in other parts of the country.

Government regulation and control of the oil sands has been very interesting, to say the least. The primary federal agencies that is, or ought to be, involved in water in the oil sands, are Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The acts that directly affect the oil sands are: the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Act, . … The problem is, Environment Canada has been seriously underfunded in this area for a number of years, relying on one, sole monitoring station (upstream) of the oil sands. In 1994, an agreement was signed between the government of Canada and the Alberta government which gave monitoring control of the water supply to the province, with the understanding that findings were to be reported to Environment Canada. Alberta then went and handed the vast majority of monitoring control to an industry sponsored program called RAMP, the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program. According to independent researcher David Schindler, RAMP has done an extraordinarily bad job, with poorly selected locations for monitoring, incomplete testing, and, worst of all, its database is not made available for outside researchers to see the information collected. What information does get relayed to Alberta through RAMP is not analyzed by the government, either, as they have no laboratory of their own, and must contract it out to industry members.

While oil sands development is an undeniable boon to the Canadian economy, it is far from pleasing to see that no one has been watching the watchmen. We need to start paying a lot more attention to what is going on in the remote areas of our country, and ensure that our impact, both immediate and long-term, is kept to a minimum. For a start, we can adapt the changes on the slide here: increased monitoring, consistent enforcement of existing laws, changes to regulations, increased transparency, and so on.

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