Bloomberg Business Week and Bloomberg News, who, along with the Wall Street Journal, are the Bibles of American commerce, domestic and global, appear to be turning sharply negative on the future of Alberta’s tar sands based oil industry.
Last fall, Bloomberg News reported that Big Oil hopes to turn Alberta’s ever-expanding toxic tar ponds into the largest man-made “lake district” on earth, a supposed magnet for cottagers, anglers, sailors and swimmers.
“Syncrude Canada began work this summer on Base Mine Lake which ultimately will measure 2,000 acres,” Bloomberg News’ Jeremy Van Loon writes. Syncrude claims the reservoir will eventually replicate a natural habitat, complete with fish and waterfowl.
As many as 30 so-called end-pit lakes are planned, according to Alberta’s Cumulative Environment Management Association, a public-private partnership.
Alberta’s tar sands are in the throes of a major expansion powered by $20 billion a year in new investment. But companies are running out of places to store the toxic waste water that is the inevitable by-product of heating groundwater until it literally boils the tar out of the sandy ground.
By 2022, the oil industry will be producing so much waste water that a month’s output could turn an area the size of New York City’s Central Park into a toxic reservoir 3.4 metres deep, according to Alberta’s Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank that promotes sustainable energy.
“There’s no way to tell how the ecology of these lakes will evolve over time,: Jennifer Grant, Pembina’s director of oil sands told Van Loon. “It’s all guesswork at this point. It’s reckless.”
A major concern surrounding the tar sands’ end pit lakes in that the contaminated water will spread through the boreal ecosystem, the band of trees and marshland that stretches around the top of the world from Canada to Russia to Scandinavia. Boreal forests are the main protection the planet has against global warming and climate change because they can store almost twice as much carbon as tropical forests.
As recently as last October, communities along the Athabaska River were warned not to drink the water after a coal tailings storage pond dumped one billion litres of contaminated waste water into an area west of Edmonton.
Renowned University of Alberta limnologist David Schindler warns that “we are playing Russian roulette with a big part of an important ecosystem. Nothing is going to grow in that soup of toxic elements except a few hydro sulphide bacteria. And all the unforeseen events are being downplayed.”
Still, Syncrude has begun filling in a mine 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Here’s how Syncrude proposes to create a “recreational” lake. Toxic slurry will be topped with fresh water to a depth of 16 feet, the level required to force tailings ponds to remain at the bottom, a Syncrude spokesperson says.
Syncrude claims naturally-occurring microbes in tailings will break down some of the pollutants allowing the reservoirs to develop ecosystems that supposedly will include insects, fish and amphibians.
But, writes Van Loon, “the largest test pond was four hectares – roughly one two-hundredth the size of Syncrude’s lake.”
A Syncrude spokesperson admits the big question is how long it will take before the water is clean and how long it will take before the littoral zones develop and the shoreline builds up. But she insists the company is confident in the technology.
Perhaps the most accurate assessment of this latter-day alchemy – turning gross (in this case, toxic water) into gold (a pristine freshwater lake) – was the headline the Winnipeg Free Press put on the Bloomberg article: “Lake Wanna Rethink That?”
Nor is the “Lake Wanna Rethink That” article the end of Bloomberg’s apparent thumbs down on the tar sands.
“A new study examining the economics of Western Canada’s oil sands finds that even if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, it’s unlikely that extracting the heavy, tar-like oil around Alberta will be commercially viable over the next decade,” writes Bloomberg Business Week’s Matthew Philips Dec. 3, 2013.
The report, written by two former Deutsche Bank analysts and titled Keystone XL Pipeline: A Potential Mirage for Oil-Sands Investors, says producers in Western Canada will have to fetch at least $65 a barrel to attract new investments and ensure current projects remain profitable. In November, Western Canadian Select, the main benchmark for pricing Canada’s heavy oil, averaged just $58.
“Canada’s heavy crude is already among the most expensive to produce in the world. But it’s also stuck,” Philips points out. “While that’s partly a function of the crude’s physical attributes (it’s heavy and thick and hard to move), the biggest problem is that there are simply not enough pipelines to transport it thousands of miles out of Western Canada and down to U.S. refiners.”
The oil industry is now resorting to trains and trucks, but they are two or three times more expensive than pipelines, pushing down the price at the wellhead.
“While the Keystone XL would help raise prices, it’s no panacea,” Philips continues. “ The project plans to move about 800,000 barrels a day from Western Canada down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the oil would command a higher price.”
But even though Keystone’s approval would spur more development and boost oil sands production, it is not a given considering American domestic politics.
“There is already so much pent-up demand to get oil out of Alberta, the 1,700-mile pipeline’s capacity would likely get maxed out and things would quickly revert back to the situation we’re in right now: producers using expensive options such as trucking and railroad to move their crude,” Philips writes.
“Of course, without Keystone XL, the Western Canadian oil sands industry seems doomed to a long struggle,” he continues. “Prices will remain low and companies won’t have the incentive to spend money to build new projects. Unable to reach the Gulf Coast, heavy Canadian crude would continue to pool around the middle of the U.S., which would only further reduce its price.”
Another major drag on Canada’s oil sands is the explosion of shale oil. Philips says it has created “a glut of oil stuck in the middle of the country,” affecting all conventional oil production, American as well as Canadian.
Given the bleak future portrayed by America’s leading business journal, Canadian taxpayers should ask whether Ottawa’s decision last May to pour $16 million of their hard-earned dollars into a PR campaign to promote oil, gas and pipeline companies is well spent or simply a reflex reaction from an ever-more-frantic government that is of, by and for Big Oil.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.