Toxic pollutants released by oil sands mining operations are accumulating in freshwater ecosystems, research by Canadian scientists suggests.
A study of sediment in nearby lakes showed the level of pollutants, known as PAHs, had risen since the 1960s when oil sands development began.
However, the researchers added that PAH concentrations were still lower than those found in urban lakes.
The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
PAH refers to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – a group of chemicals that have been shown to affect aquatic organisms and birds. PAHs have also been described as being responsible for damaging food crops.
The chemicals occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and petroleum; they are also present in products made from fossil fuels, such as creosote and asphalt.
PAHs also can be released into the air during the burning of fossil fuels and organic matter – the less efficient the burning process, the more PAHs are given off. Forest fires and volcanoes produce PAHs naturally.
Digging the dirt
Using sediment cores from five lakes within a 35km (22-mile) radius of major oil sands facilities and one remote lake (90km/56 miles from the facilities), the researchers assessed the ecological impact of oil sands developments on freshwater ecosystems.
Core samples showed a rise in PAH concentrations since the development of oil sands mining
Analysis of the samples showed that PAH levels were now 2.5-23 times greater than levels from about 1960.
Core samples showed a rise in PAH concentrations since the development of oil sands mining
In their paper, the team wrote: “PAH ratios indicate temporal shifts from primarily wood combustion to [decomposed organic material] sources that coincide with greater oil sands development.
“Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines have been exceeded since the mid-1980s at the most impacted sites.”
Oil sands, also known as tar sands, have only recently considered to be a viable component of the world’s oil reserves as a result of rising energy prices and the development of technology that has made its processing profitable.
These factors has resulted in a marked increase in the extraction and processing of oil sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, which account for 97% of the nation’s proven reserves and is the world’s third largest reserve.
The researchers say that in 1980, daily production was 100,000 but has grown to about 1.5 million barrels a day, It is projected to reach 3.7 million barrels by 2025, they added.
The development of the oil sands sector has been controversial, prompting polemic between those in favour of utilising the resource to cushion the Canadian economy from shocks in global energy prices and those who say the environmental costs are too high.
Press secretary for Environment Minister Peter Kent
In 2010, The Star newspaper reported that concerned residents on the shores of Lake Athabasca (downstream from one of the region’s major oil sands facilities) had called for the federal government to commission an independent study to assess the impact on the area’s water bodies.
The call came after local people said a growing number of landed fish where showing signs of deformities.
They voiced concern that there was not an effective system of environmental monitoring was in place.
At the time, the federal environment minister said he was listening to calls for a monitoring programme.
The researchers behind the PNAS study said that there was conflicting findings among the few long-term PAH datasets that existed, with some suggesting increases in limited areas, while other recording no increase between the 1950s and 1998.
“Establishment of background PAH concentrations and historic loadings is essential and would allow the impacts of development, including industrial PAH contributions, to be compared with the natural range… in lake sediment from the region,” they wrote.
“As noted repeatedly in previous assessments of the impacts of the Alberta oil sands operations, insufficient monitoring data and a poor understanding of pre-development conditions have attempts to determine the scope of pollution from oil sands development.”
The team concluded that the findings from their study had to be considered in a wider environmental context.
“As a consequence of climate warming, the physical processes that lakes experience can be altered,” they said.
“Longer ice-free season and enhanced thermal stability, coupled with higher surface-water temperatures and the redistribution of nutrients within the water column, contribute to greater algal production within many lake ecosystems.”
They concluded: “Analyses of sediment cores from five lakes near major oil sands operations and remote Namur Lake demonstrate that modern PAH concentrations and fluxes, including DBTs, are well above ‘natural’ pre-development levels.”
But, they added: “The ultimate ecological consequences of decades-long increases in aquatic primary production, coupled with greater PAH loadings to lakes in the oil sands region, are unknown and require further assessment.”
Adam Sweet, press secretary for Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent, said the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring, announced in February 2012, was committed to a “scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated, and transparent environmental monitoring program for the region.
“It is important to note that the results in this paper come from field studies that were conducted prior to the announcement of the Joint Plan,” he told BBC News.
“In fact, the Joint Plan was created, and implemented, to address the very concerns raised by such studies – it was designed to provide an improved understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development.
“Canada has strong rules and regulations in place to ensure that the Canadian environment is protected, and our government will continue to ensure that Canada’s oil sands are developed responsibly.”
Fish living downstream of Alberta’s oil sands have lesions resembling those found on Gulf fish after the BP oil spill, warns a Canadian ecologist.
Three years ago this April, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill catastrophe killed 11 workers and spewed nearly 5 million barrels (158,000,000 gallons) of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Mutant crabs and tumor-laden fish later turned up in the waters of the region.
ANALYSIS: Mutant Crabs Turning Up in the Gulf
Finding similar lesions on Canada’s fish, David Schindler of the University of Alberta has suggested that the chemical cocktail in crude oil may be responsible for the deformities, reported the Canadian Press. Schindler pointed to similar lesions on fish found in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill as further evidence of oil’s effects on aquatic wildlife.
ANALYSIS: Record Dolphin, Sea Turtle Deaths Since Gulf Spill
The lakes of Alberta, Canada contain a toxic legacy after a half century of Athabasca oil sands drilling, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons levels in six lakes in the region increased by up to 23 times their 1960 levels.
Schindler wrote a letter to Canadian Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent calling for Canada to take the lead in studying the effects of oil contamination on fish. Schindler also suggested the Canadian government renew funding for the Experimental Lakes, a set of 58 lakes used for studies of freshwater ecosystems since 1968.
NEWS: Are Dolphins Doomed?
The Canadian government announced the end of funding for the Experimental Lakes last year, supposedly to save $2 million. However, the Huffington Post reported that the facility only cost $600,000 per year and that a third of that was covered by users’ fees. Some activists believe that political motivations against climate change research were the real reason for the lakes’ closure.
IMAGE: Syncrude’s base mine in the Athabasca oil sands region. (TastyCakes, Wikimedia Commons)
There appear to be “remarkable similarities” between fish deformities found downstream from Alberta’s oilsands and those observed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and after Florida’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, says a renowned ecologist.
David Schindler of the University of Alberta has written an open letter to two federal cabinet ministers pointing out the recent research findings from scientists as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico.
“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations,” Schindler wrote.
He’s proposing that Canada take the lead in researching the issue by isolating the various chemical compounds and introducing them to fish stocks in a controlled setting.
And Schindler says the federal Experimental Lakes Area – which has been shut down by Ottawa for a savings of about $2 million annually – is the ideal natural laboratory for the work.
In a letter Wednesday to Fisheries Minister Keith Ash-field and Environment Minister Peter Kent – copied to a number of U.S. scientists and some news media – Schindler praised the monitoring work of government scientists in the Athabasca River.
But he said such monitoring can’t possibly determine which chemicals may be affecting aquatic life due to the “complex chemical soup” found downstream from industrial oilsands development.
What’s required, the scientist said, “would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes, and the effects determined on several key species in the food chain.”
It’s tailor-made for the federal Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, a remote region of 58 pristine lakes that have been used since 1968 for groundbreaking freshwater studies on everything from nutrient-loading and mercury exposure to acid rain.
The Harper government announced last year it was closing the world-renowned facility as a cost-saving measure – although insiders say the operating cost of the facility is only $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees.
Fully funded independent researchers have been refused access to the site to continue their research this summer, although Ottawa is in negotiations with the province of Ontario and other parties to transfer management.
Linking the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area – a cause celebre among Canada’s scientific research community and environmentalists – with oilsands pollution is a potentially toxic political mix for the government.
Activists have already claimed climate-change research at the ELA is the real reason the Conservatives closed the facility.
A spokeswoman for Ashfield did not directly address Schindler’s proposal when reached for comment, but said in an email “the government continues to actively work toward establishing a new operator for the ELA site so that research there can continue.”
Erin Filliter added that “freshwater science continues to be conducted across Canada at multiple facilities which more than adequately meets the needs of government research.”
Similarly, Rob Taylor at Environment Canada said by email that “Minister Kent is very engaged in the environmental monitoring of the oilsands region.” “The Canada-Alberta joint scientific monitoring program has been put in place to study any impact on air quality, water quality and biodiversity,” said Taylor.
I’ve been tracking a tube of black putrid ooze, a toxic viper slowly slithering 2,000 miles across the belly of America, swallowing all water aquifers, politicians and reason in its path.
The XL Keystone Pipeline.
As Nagini, the murderous snake in the Harry Potter tales, had its master Voldemort, I figured the Keystone XL Pipeline must also have its own dark lords.
And the Dark Lords of the Keystone Pipeline left clear clues: environmental horror, political payouts and the odour of sulphur stronger than explained by the stinking hot tar inside it. I smelled Koch.
David and Charles Koch are each worth $20 billion (£12.7 billion), and they’re quite certain that’s not enough. And so they need the XL Keystone Pipeline.
The XL Keystone will take Canadian tar-sands oil, the filthiest crude on the planet, and suck it down to Texas’ Gulf Coast refineries. Alberta’s oil-glop reserve, if it can get to the US market, will warm the planet by nearly 0.4°C all by itself.
Why in the world would America pistol-whip Mother Nature to bring oil to Texas? I mean, it’s just plain weird to suck heavy tar oil out of Canada to drag it across the entire middle of the USA and import it into the oil-exporting Lone Star State.
Here’s where a little lesson in oil chemistry comes in. You can’t just throw any old crude oil into an oil refinery. These giant filth factories are actually quite sensitive. The refineries of the Texas Gulf Coast are optimised for heavy crude.
It would cost billions of dollars to rebuild the giant Flint Hills Corpus Christi Refinery, owned by Koch Industries, to use the less-polluting Texas oil drilled nearby.
The Kochs need heavy crude. But the Brothers Koch have a problem. Heavy crude is controlled by a heavy dude – President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
In case you haven’t heard, the US Department of Energy now says Venezuela, not Saudi Arabia, has the world’s largest petroleum reserve – including the overwhelming bulk of the planet’s heavy crude.
And Chavez is not giving it away. “We are no longer an oil colony, Mr Palast,” Chavez told me during one of our meet-ups in Caracas.
He wasn’t kidding. Venezuela’s export price now averages around $100 (£64) a barrel.
So the Kochs have turned their gaze upward – to Canada, where Alberta oil men are selling their tar-sands gunk for a whopping $33 (£21) a barrel less than Chavez’s heavy. Do the maths: With 289,000 barrels a day refined at Corpus Christi, switching from Venezuela heavy to Canadian tar could put an extra $3 billion (£1.9 billion) a year into the pockets of the Kochs.
However, there’s a problem. Between Canada and Houston is the United States. At the moment, there’s no pipeline that can take all that cheap crude south. The southbound pipeline network now chokes at Cushing, Oklahoma, which is already blocked with 47 million barrels of crude sitting in storage tanks with nowhere to go.
So all the Kochs have to do is get the US government to agree to pop a pipe through Cushing to Houston: the Keystone XL. But that would require that the US government go stark raving mad, commit environmental suicide and reverse all policy to slow global warming – all to bring in foreign oil while the US itself is suffering from a major oil and gas glut.
Furthermore, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline will raise the price of heating oil and gasoline in the US.
Let me repeat: Approving the Keystone XL Pipeline will raise the price of oil and gasoline.
This is the nasty little secret of the pipeline lords and unknown to all but experts. Every Republican politician and not a few Democrats have promoted the fairy tale that the XL Pipeline will reduce gasoline and oil prices throughout the USA.
It’s bullshit, but it’s gospel – utterly unquestioned by the mainstream media. Most official opponents of the pipeline buy the lower-cost-oil line, repeating variants of the New York Times editorial that the economic “benefit from Keystone XL outweigh the certain damages” to the environment.
But the “benefit” is bogus. Prices for gasoline will rise by about 15 cents (nine pence) a gallon in the Upper Midwest if the pipe opens.
Here’s why. Normally, the supply of crude oil in the US doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the price of gas you put in your Humvee. Normally, Canadians could hose us down with hot tar and it wouldn’t change oil and gas prices by a penny.
That’s because the international price of oil is not set by supply and demand in the marketplace. Rather, the price is fixed by a dictator in a bathrobe, Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia. He dictates, you pay.
But there are always anomalies.
As matters stand, with nowhere to dump their tar goo, Canadians have to sell at a $33 (£21) a barrel discount to nearby refineries in the US Upper Midwest.
American consumers are getting the benefit of this oil backup. Indeed, one angry Canuck, Cenovus Energy CEO Brian Ferguson, complains that the pipeline plug results in “subsidisation to the United States consumer by $1,200 (£764) per Canadian”.
The XL Pipeline would act as an oil enema, releasing the impacted inventory, enriching the Gulf refineries.
The result of opening the spigot through the XL Keystone will mean that US Midwest retail heating oil prices will skyrocket and gasoline in the region, as the crude drains away to other refineries, will rise an estimated 15 cents a gallon.
True, cheaper crude oil will now flow south, but as Canadian economist Robyn Allan writes, “It’s the refining sector that sees the benefit of lower-priced WCS [West Canadian Sands oil] in the form of windfall profits from low feedstock costs.”
The gusher of cheap crude from a new pipeline will enrich the refiners – none more so than refiners named Koch.
But how will the Kochs get Obama and the US government to turn against US consumers and their own green policies and promises? We’ll get to that next week.
I’ve been tracking the Kochs for 18 years, first as a private investigator on a case of oil missing from a Native American Indian reservation.
One thing from that case sticks with me even today. The trail of missing oil led to Charles Koch himself, who (according to a secret recording), told a co-conspirator why he did it. The billionaire said,
“I want my fair share. And that’s ALL OF IT.”
And “all of it” now includes a pipeline filled with hot, cheap oil.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @Greg_Palast
Today’s lying cheating untrustworthy oil company lie. Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway announced that almost 60 per cent of First Nations along the planned Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline between Alberta and B.C. have signed on to become part owners.
It is simply not true, not even when the Natives outside the route are included [which they admitted doing to pad the numbers].
Quote from CBC news: “Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt says he has checked with every aboriginal group along the route from Alberta to Kitimat and only found two that have signed equity agreements with Enbridge.”
TWO!!! There are 45 First Nations along the pipeline. I am not good at math, but I think that is less than 1%. They cannot be trusted, and nobody in their right mind would sign a contract with such a devious organisation. Apparently, some large sums of money have been paid to natives along the route, so possibly those two that signed were corrupted by selfish desires for money – exactly the kind of thing that Enbridge is good at.