Alberta keeps oil sands' environmental impacts in check

The burgeoning development of Alberta's vast oil sands resources and its effect on the province's air, water, and land is being closely and carefully monitored by government officials as well as other environmental research agencies to ensure its sustainability.

Steven Poruban
Senior Editor

CALGARY, July 17 -- The burgeoning development of Alberta's vast oil sands resources and its effect on the province's land, water, and air is being closely and carefully monitored by government officials as well as other environmental research agencies to ensure its sustainability.

This was the main message conveyed July 16 by several keynote speakers to delegates attending the Oil Sands & Heavy Oil Technologies Conference & Exhibition in Calgary. Attendees also heard about Alberta's plan for addressing climate change and capturing and sequestering the tonnes of carbon dioxide created through oil sands bitumen extraction and development.

"The theme for the conference sums it up very well—Stepping Up: Preparation for Growing Expansion," said Len Webber, parliamentary assistant, Alberta Energy. "Alberta is stepping up to our responsibility to ensure our energy resources are developed responsibly," he said.

Last year, Alberta exported about 1.35 million b/d of crude to the US, supplying 13% of American crude oil imports, Webber said, adding that while Alberta continues to garner more global attention, it has "become more important than ever for Alberta to maintain a stable environment for investors."

He added, "At the same time, it's vital that we ensure the environmentally responsible development of our oil sands."

Addressing climate change
Admitting that there was probably no bigger environmental issue currently than climate change, Webber reported that Alberta's oil sands compose only about 4% of Canada's overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "As an entire country, Canada is responsible for about 2% of global emissions," he said, adding, "Putting that in perspective, Alberta's oil sands contribute less than one tenth of 1% of all GHG emissions in the world."

Eddy Isaacs, executive director, Alberta Energy Research Institute (AERI), told conference attendees that in 2006, Alberta GHG emissions, by facility, broke down into power plants emitting 51.7 million tonnes, oil sands emitting 24 million tonnes, and heavy oil emitting 6.8 million tonnes.

Webber noted that Alberta is backing up words about climate change concerns with action, reminding attendees about the recent launch of two $2 billion initiatives: one designed to advance large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects and the other to propel public transit across the province.

Earlier this year, Alberta released a climate change plan of action designed to reduce its GHG emissions by 2050 by 50%, or 200 million tonnes/year. "CCS will be responsible for reducing 70% of our GHG emissions in 2050," Webber said.

Last year, Webber noted, Alberta became the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate GHG reductions of large industrial facilities. "By law, the largest industrial facilities, including oil sands facilities, must reduce their emissions intensity by 12%," he said.

Webber explained: "Facilities can choose to reduce emissions by making operating improvements that will result in reductions. They can buy Alberta-based credits from other large emitters who've reduced their emissions. Or they can contribute $15/tonne to a fund that will direct money towards strategic projects or technology aimed at reducing GHG emissions."

He said, "Results from the first year indicate that companies made 2.6 million tonnes of actual reductions. That's equivalent to taking 550,000 vehicles off the road in a year."

CCS initiatives
"CCS is a scientifically proven technology that will reduce carbon emissions from large-scale operations like oil sands extraction, value-added upgrading, and coal-fired generation," Webber said.

AERI's Isaacs said that large potential for carbon storage capacity lies in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, based on high-level screening studies. Storage in saline formations has potential as well, Isaacs said, but better reservoir delineation and injectivity analysis is currently needed.

CCS initiatives for Alberta's oil sands development projects need continued site-specific studies, Isaacs said, citing as an example the Long Lake project carbon dioxide capacity study.

"CCS technology needs vanguard large-scale projects to prove viability," Isaacs said.

Land, water, and air
Webber said, "You might have heard that the oil sands lie beneath a region about the size of Florida—roughly 54,000 sq miles—over 140,000 sq km." However only about 162 sq miles, or about 500 sq km, have been disturbed by oil sands activity to date, he said, adding, "That's less than 1% of the total oil sands area."

Under Alberta's strict reclamation standards, Webber said, "every inch of land that is disturbed must be reclaimed so it can be productive again."

Alberta also places strict limits on industry water use, Webber said, adding, "Some might have you believe that oil sands projects are using nothing but fresh, drinkable water to extract bitumen."

In fact, Webber stated, "Oil sands developers have drastically reduced their need to draw fresh water. Some recycle more than 90% of the water used in their operations and use saline water instead of fresh water wherever possible."

Kate Rich, with the science and standards branch of Alberta Environment, a newly established division that focuses on policy development, told conference delegates that about 2-5 bbl of fresh water is being used for every 1 bbl of oil produced in mines and 0.5 bbl or less of fresh water being used for in situ production.

Several frameworks have been established, Rich said, noting as an example the Athabasca River Water Management Framework, which sets strict limits on how much water can be withdrawn. This amount of water is reduced, she said, during environmentally sensitive, or low-flow times.

Regarding air quality, Webber stated that it was important for people to know that it is being monitored 24 hr/day, 365 days/year. "It is tested for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide," he said.

"In 2007, for example, air quality near Fort McMurray was rated good or better 98% of the time," Webber said.

Alberta Environment's Rich explained that set objectives for Alberta's air management require the adoption of best-available technologies. "We do want to keep what's clean, clean," she said.

Contact Steven Poruban at

More in General Interest