If we forced oil sands companies to pay the real costs of their activities instead of externalizing them to future generations, the oil sands would very quickly lose their economic appeal.
By Justin Jones
Published January 23, 2014
Recently, Neil Young's Honour the Treaties tour brought the ongoing operations at the Alberta oil sands back into the public eye. For better or for worse, Mr. Young's comments have ignited a debate around the oil sands that I feel really needs to happen in our country.
Mr. Young's critics will attack his primary residency (he spends most of his days in the US), his lifestyle (a rock star is not exactly a scientific authority) and some of the more asinine comments he made (how many times do I have to hear his comparison to Hiroshima repeated?), but they ignore a few of the more important aspects behind these critiques.
While it's true Mr. Young doesn't live in Canada any more, he still feels a connection to this land. That's like telling me I should have no concern for my hometown because I left. Well, maybe I want to move back there some day, maybe I still have people I care about living there, and maybe I just want to see the place succeed because I feel an emotional attachment to it. So that point is moot.
People will say Mr. Young doesn't have the authority or the scientific background to speak authoritatively about the oil sands. That might be true, but in a country where those who do have that background and expertise are increasingly being silenced because what their expertise is telling them is that we're headed in the wrong direction, someone has to speak out.
People will also attack Mr. Young's lifestyle, saying that a wealthy rocker has no right to tell hard-working Canadians what to think. Well, that's a fair point, or at least it would be if our federal government wasn't spending millions of our tax dollars every year to promote oil sands oil both at home and abroad.
Like it or not, celebrities are the only ones with the media clout and the resources to bring the other side of the argument to light in a country where the scientific community is being muzzled and where intelligent debate on this topic is increasingly being silenced.
But all these points aside, the past couple of weeks has brought to light the alarming fact that very few Canadians know what the oil sands are really like. And by that I mean that a very small number of people have actually been there, and have seen them up close and personal.
I have, and I'll tell you it's not pretty.
In my University days, while living in Edmonton, I worked summers as a Vegetation Management Technician, which is basically a fancy way of saying that I sprayed weeds for a living. While it wasn't the most glamorous way to make a buck, the money was good and I got to see a lot of our country that I wouldn't otherwise have seen.
One of those places was Fort McMurray, where I spent two summers spraying on all of the major oil sands sites.
I'll try to set the stage for you a little bit, try to give you an idea of what it's like visiting Fort McMurray for the first time.
The first thing you need to know about going to work in Fort Mac is to call a hotel as soon as you know you're heading up and book early. Even though there's dozens of hotels there, the rooms always fill quickly. Oh, and the rooms are also twice as expensive as almost anywhere else in Alberta.
All the parking lots in the hotels in Fort Mac are filled with trucks, generally three-quarter tonne and above. Some, like the spray truck I was driving, are clearly for work. Others, with their massive lift kits and chrome rims, are clearly for play.
At about 6:00 every morning, the exodus from the city begins. A steady stream of trucks funnel north on the highway 63, heading towards Suncor and Syncrude, creating massive traffic jams as the shifts come and go.
As you drive North out of Fort Mac, you can almost forget where you are. The boreal forest is thick along highway 63 for several kilometers, and only the smoke and steam on the horizon offers you a hint of what you're about to see.
You can drive by the Suncor site, about 15 km north of Fort McMurray, without really realizing what you've gone by - there's a sign by the highway, and the site is separated from the road by a stand of intact forest. But drive a few kilometers further North, to Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility, and everything changes.
As you round the corner on the highway 63 and get your first glimpse of Mildred Lake, the first thing you see on either side of the highway is a large lake. Even in the summer, the lake is shrouded in steam in the morning hours, and you hear loud bangs every couple of seconds. The bangs are from sound cannons, placed around the lake, designed to prevent birds from landing in it.
The lake itself is referred to as a "tailings pond", a name that belies the massive scope of the body of toxic water that lays before you.
Fed by large pipes spewing brown and black muck, the tailings ponds are a toxic soup of heavy metals, petroleum byproducts and other terrible stuff that should have been left underground. It's what is left behind once the oil and sand have been removed from the oil sands, and it's something that the industry still doesn't really know how to deal with.
To get a sense of just how big these tailings ponds are, and how unprepared the industry is to deal with them, wrap your head around this fact: the largest dam in the world is not in China - it's not the Three Gorges Dam, It's in Alberta.
It's the largest dam by material volume in the entire world, and it's holding back Syncrude's Mildred Lake Settling Basin from flowing into the Athabasca River. How many Canadians do you think know that our country is home to the world's largest dam? I'd venture a guess that the number is pretty low.
Once you get on site, the scope of everything is absolutely terrifying. Holding tanks the size of football fields, trucks so big you need to have a ten-foot flag on your pickup just to enter the site so that the drivers can see you from their cockpit, catalytic crackers and separators that dwarf most office towers in Hamilton. Everything is super-sized.
One memory will last with me until my dying day. I remember working out on the tailings sands, looking for Common Tansy, a particularly aggressive invasive species in that part of the world.
The tailings sands are grey, lifeless sand dunes that stretch as far as you can see. They're grey because of the traces of tar, of heavy metals and of other toxic materials left behind by the extraction process. They sit atop places where the "overburden" has been stripped and where the valuable oil sands have been mined out.
Overburden, for those that don't know, is the term the industry uses for the pesky stuff that gets in the way of oil sands extraction. You know, things like soil, trees and vegetation. The things that make up our boreal forest, that support one of the most diverse, fragile and important ecosystems on the planet. That's "overburden".
As I looked out across a landscape that was completely alien, I took a moment to collect myself and asses the gravity of this situation. Here I was, where a forest once stood, standing on grey sand dunes that stretched as far as I could see.
Where I did see intact forest, it abutted against a large patch of clear-cut, a patch that had already been cleared of the overburden, waiting for the giant shovels, diggers and trucks to come in and extract the sticky, valuable bitumen from beneath the soil that had been built up over thousands of years, only to be removed for something deemed more valuable by our modern society.
That experience hit me hard. It's stuck with me, especially knowing that the patch of forest I saw is likely long gone since then, the mosses, shrubs, trees and wildlife that called it home even more casualties of an industry that is completely out of control.
People will tout the fact that the oil sands are getting better. They'll tell you that they're remediating land, that they're trying to develop the resources in a way that's as environmentally friendly as possible.
I know some people that work in the industry back home. They're good, intelligent people trying to do right, but they're working in a place that is, to my mind, inherently wrong. First let's talk remediation.
I've seen the land they're remediating, the small patch of land that Syncrude loves to show in their commercials, where a small herd of wood buffalo roam. I've worked on that land, hunting for invasive plant species year after year and either spraying them or pulling them by hand, and I can tell you that the remediation process still has a very long way to go.
It's pure arrogance for any of us to think that we can put things back the way we found them up there. Boreal forest is a climax state - it's a mature ecosystem that takes thousands of years to develop. For us to think that we can ever put things back the way we found them, especially on the scale we're disturbing things, is not only arrogant, but downright delusional.
They've managed to remediate a fraction of one percent of the land they've disturbed in in the Athabasca region, and it's cost them an arm and a leg to do it.
Unless the industry and all levels of government have been saving up some secret, multi-trillion dollar remediation fund that nobody talks about or knows about, I can tell you who is going to get stuck with the bill.
It's certainly not the oil companies, nor is it the people that are sitting in board rooms right now making record profits. It's the Canadian taxpayers, but it will fall on my children's generation, or maybe their children's. And the costs will be devastating.
But that's not being factored in to these arguments right now. The arguments are: "Well, we're getting better at cleaning it up. By the time we're done we'll know what we're doing".
That's like going in for open heart surgery with a surgeon who has never seen a human heart before, but he assures you that he'll figure it out once he has some time to poke around in there for a bit.
In the meantime, we've set aside an area the size of Florida and opened it up for development to the oil companies, in the hopes that one day they'll have the technology, the finances and the desire to remediate all that land and make sure that future Canadians aren't stuck with a smoldering, toxic moonscape where hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine boreal forest used to be.
Are you starting to understand why I have a problem with this yet?
And on the technology side - yes, things are getting better. Extraction techniques are improving, and in some fields they're able to exclusively use what's called Steam Assisted Gravity Drilling (SAGD) to get the bitumen out of the ground.
These methods don't produce the massive scars of an open pit mine, but they do rely very heavily on massive amounts of water being injected into the ground. It still produces tailings, and also relies heavily on natural gas to heat the water to steam before it's injected, so it's resource intensive as well.
This process is used a lot, but it's not suitable for all the fields, meaning that open pit mining is still the extraction method of choice in many places.
No matter how many innovations we come up with, this process will still invariably be incredibly resource intensive, will result in huge volumes of waste materials, and will result in severe damage to our boreal forest ecosystem.
So even if it gets better, it will still never be environmentally friendly, no matter what the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and our federal government will tell you.
Of course, I understand the flip-side of all of this. The oil sands are really one of the economic engines of our country right now, employing tens of thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly.
But that's a matter of priorities. We could be employing those skilled tradespeople in retrofitting office buildings, building district energy plants, and building renewable energy infrastructure. Study after study shows that investments made in those areas provides more jobs, more economic impact and more net benefit to society, but that doesn't fit in with the mindset of our current government.
We're very much getting the country we're planning for right now, because the Conservatives have been saying that the oil sands are the economic engine of Canada for so long that we've all started to believe it, like it's some natural phenomenon and not the result of policies that favour petroleum development over all else.
If we forced companies to pay the real costs of their activities, to set aside enough money to actually remediate the land they're tearing up, and to show credibly that they know how to deal with the toxic sludge they're creating day after day without any real oversight, regulation or consequence, then the oil sands would very quickly lose their economic appeal.
But we've externalized all those costs, downloaded them to future generations of taxpayers, in hopes that they will develop the technology and the will to do what we haven't.
To my mind, that's too great a burden to place on future generations. It's too much work to ask them to do, too much money to ask them to spend, and too much risk to ask them to assume for our laziness and unwillingness to look at our lifestyles and our economy with a more critical lens.
If you truly support the oil sands, I encourage you to go up there one day, to visit the sites and see what it is you're actually supporting. Then come back, look me in the eye and tell me that you think we can clean that up, that you're not concerned about the air, the water and the ecosystems of the North, and that those jobs are worth the risk we're exposing our children to.
I've been there, I've seen it, and I know enough to know that it's absolutely not worth it. Not now, not ever, and it has to stop.