Canadian Consulting Engineer

Oilsands operations should look to their competitors, says environmentalists’ report

January 21, 2008
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

Alberta's oil sands received a poor review from the Pembina Institute and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada in Janua...

Alberta’s oil sands received a poor review from the Pembina Institute and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada in January. However, the environmentalists also said that if the different companies operating in the oil sands were to follow the best practices of their peers, huge savings in greenhouse gas and other emissions would be possible.
Consulting engineering companies in Canada are heavily involved in oilsands developments in Northern Alberta. The engineers help the oilsands companies in various roles, including environmental review studies, designing the mining facilities and processes, tailing ponds and associated infrastructure such as roads. They also help with equipment procurement and project and construction management.
The Pembina-WWF report entitled “Under-Mining the Environment, the Oil Sands Report Card,” released January 2008 ranked nine out of 10 of Alberta’s oil sand operations that are currently operating, approved or in the application stages.
The results for all 10 operations were poor, but the report’s authors pointed out that the companies could use the results to compare their performance with other oilsands producers, and then follow the best examples.
The report found, for example, (assuming full production), that if all the oilsands mines could meet the greenhouse gas emissions intensity per barrel of oil that was being proposed by the Canadian Natural’s Horizon project — 23.34 kg. carbon dioxide emissions (C02) per barrel of bitumen — Alberta would avoid emitting over 6 million tonnes of CO2 every year — saving 66% overall. Canadian consulting engineering companies listed as awarded contracts for the huge Horizon oilsands project include Fluor Canada, SNC-Lavalin, AMEC and Stantec.
Other best examples given in the report for the oilsands operators to aim for were:
? Petro-Canada’s Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions at 86 grams per barrel of bitumen. If all the mines followed this example, overall VOC emission rates would be reduced annually by 47%.
? Shell Jackpine’s nitrogen oxide (NOx) intensity proposed at 113 grams per barrel of bitumen. If all the mines followed this example, overall NOx emissions would be reduced almost 80%.
? Canadian Natural Horizon’s sulphur dioxide (S02) intensity at 14 grams per barrel of bitumen. If all the mines followed suite, overall S02 emissions would be reduce by 47%.
? Petro-Canada’s water intensity use of 0.20 cu.m of water per barrel of bitumen. If all the mines achieved this rate of water use, their overall consumption would be reduced by almost 60% annually.
The report also noted that if all oil sands mines adopted the dry tailings technologies being proposed for the Synenco Northern Lights and Total Joslyn projects, “the environmental hazard of mature fine tailings at the end of a mine’s life would be completely eliminated.”
Generally, however, the environmentalists found gaping holes in the oil sands’ existing environmental reporting and performance. The report scored the 10 operations in five categories — impact on land, air, water, climate and general environmental management. The mark was based on a combination of answers to a questionnaire (three companies didn’t respond) and corporate annual reports.
The highest score for environmental responsibility was given to an existing mine, the Muskeg River Mine by Albian Sands at 56%. The lowest scores were given to Syncrude’s existing mine and the proposed Northern Lights Mine of Synenco, which both scored 18%. The average score of all 10 oilsands operations assessed was 33%.
In the report summary, Simon Dyer, a spokesperson of the Pembina Institute, noted that despite the growing worldwide concern about the environmental impacts of oil sands mining, “oil sands companies are making weak efforts to manage their environmental impacts.”
Rob Powell of WWF-Canada, noted “These companies have both the expertise and the resources to do much better.”
And Marlo Reynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, said that there was an opportunity for better cooperation between the companies to achieve better environmental engineering: “We also believe an opportunity exists for companies to step up and work together to solve these environmental challenges. Let’s get the best engineers available focused on environmental performance.”
Some of the most disappointment aspects of current oil sands mining they reported was that in the 40 years in which the oil sands have been developed, not a single hectare of land has been certified as having been reclaimed according to Government of Alberta guidelines.
As well, no project or company has publicly reported its targets for reducing the intensity of its water use.
The authors of the report said government needs to require more consistent reporting so that meaningful comparisons between different mining operations can be made. And environmental reporting needs to be mandated by government, since voluntary reporting is not working, said the report.
Meanwhile, the environmental groups went to court on January 15 over the proposed Kearl Tar Sands project. Ecojustice, Pembina Institute and Sierra Club argue that a federal-provincial joint panel environmental assessment of the open pit mine was flawed. The Kearl project will extend over an area of 20,000 football fields, “and leave behind toxic tailing ponds visible from space,” says Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute. The institute also says the Kearl Tar project will release greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to putting 800,000 passenger vehicles on the road. The court has reserved judgement on the case and should reach a decision within four to six months.
To see the Pembina Institute WWF-Canada Report, visit


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