The Hidden Cost of Canada’s Oil Sands
Alberta’s vast oil sand deposits are a point of major contention in Canada; on one hand, they have created a boom industry that has done much to buoy the sagging Canadian economy, and on the other, they have come under major fire from watchdog groups for the environmental damage the sands are responsible for. Many are unaware, however, that much of the damage attributed to the oil sands is actually caused by burning natural gas to seperate the sand from the oil. The biggest offender in terms of damage to the environment is shale gas.
Shale gas is a type of natural gas extracted from shale rock and the method of extraction is the subject of major scrutiny. Hydraulic fracking, or simply fracking, is the process of blasting a poisonous stew of chemicals, sand, and water into pourous shale rock in order to extract natural gas, and the results have been nothing short of appalling. Reports have indicated the toxic sludge being blasted into the ground is making its way into the groundwater in the surrounding area, and as a result, is seeping into the drinking water of North American homes. But hydraulic fracking is still an extremely cheap method of mining natural gas, compared to other natural gas sources.
In particular, Pennsylvania has had a number of issues with shale gas mining. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has been temporarily banned from drilling in the state following the contamination of drinking water in Dimock Township. In Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, a well blowout sent more than thirty five thousand gallons of carcinogenic and toxic fracking fluid into the surrounding area, and the company responsible has also been required to cease operations in the state of Pennsylvania. These are not isolated incidents, either; Cornell University recently released a study suggesting shale gas extracted through fracking contributes just as much to global warming as coal, if not more.
The connection between shale gas and the Alberta oil sands is quite clear. Because shale gas is so inexpensive, and one of the main costs for oil extraction in Alberta is natural gas,
Albertan oil companies are positively booming. This, combined with the high price of oil has made the business of extracting oil from the Alberta oil sands even more profitable, as Tyler Hamilton so rightly pointed out in his article for MIT Technology Review. He states that the fact that natural gas has fallen in value by more than half (it fell from $11 US per 1 million British Thermal Units to $4.5 US) since late 2008 — a huge drop that has fueled another major oil sand boom. He goes on to say that if trends continue, the oil sands will be churning out 5 million barrels of crude a day in 2020, compared to 2011′s already substantial 1.5 million, a jump in production that is sure to have a bigger effect on the environment.
Much has been made in the past of the fact that Alberta’s oil is “dirty”, in that it requires the burning of natural gas. Strangely, fingers have yet to be pointed at the extremely hazardous practice of hydraulic fracking (Tyler Hamilton being an exception), even though it certainly deserves much more public scrutiny. As we move forward, Canadians need to start asking tough questions to itself — although the industry brings in an immense amount of wealth to the country, can we continue to allow the companies involved use a fuel source as harmful as shale gas.
Bibliography and Related Articles
- Canada’s Oil Sands on the Verge of a Boom, Again (technologyreview.in)
- Oil, Gas Companies Injected Chemicals Into Ground, Report Shows (businessweek.com)
- http://www.riverreporter.com/issues/10-06-10/news-explosions.html (riverreporter)
- http://www.pressconnects.com/article/20100415/NEWS11/4150364/Pa.-regulators-shut-down-Cabot-drilling (pressconnects)