Right here in North America could lie the answer to our energy needs. But at what cost? Mining the tar sands of Alberta threatens to strip the world's largest intact forest of its ability to hold carbon and to wipe out the breeding grounds for millions of birds.
Suncor prides itself on maintaining a dialogue with critics, billing itself as a "sustainable energy company" and noting that it has reduced its water use and the amount of greenhouse gases produced per barrel of oil. But none of the visiting environmentalists expects to come away a believer. There's a reason opponents call tar-sands fuel the world's dirtiest oil: Extracting bitumen and purifying it into synthetic crude uses so much natural gas that it creates roughly three times the greenhouse-gas emissions as conventional North American oil production, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Energy.
"This is the highest-impact oil on a per-barrel basis," says Alberta biologist Simon Dyer, who is accompanying the U.S. visitors today. Dyer heads the Oil Sands Program at the Pembina Institute, a respected Canadian sustainable-energy think tank. "In a time when we need to be reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, this is actually sending us in the wrong direction." What's more, Dyer adds, tar-sands operations suck up more water than the Athabasca River can spare during times of low water flow. "During late winter there are periods when the river is being damaged if the flow drops low enough," he says. "Yet there is no time when companies are forced to halt water withdrawals." What water remains is contaminated. Last December University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler published a landmark study linking the Athabasca's high levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and similar pollutants directly to the tar-sands operations.
Mark Shaw, a recently retired Suncor vice president, acknowledges that extraction takes its toll. "We are running an oil-sands facility that has an open-pit mine. We have an environmental impact," he says. "Our view is that it's an acceptable impact for the social and economic benefit." The biggest benefit is the potential for energy independence, say the industry's U.S. boosters, who also insist that critics exaggerate tar sands' carbon intensity.
Mostly, Shaw wants to talk about Suncor's effort to turn a tailings pond back into woodlands. Tailings, sludgy by-products of the mining process, have become one of the industry's biggest vulnerabilities. The waste--which can contain metals, cancer-causing PAHs, and fish-killing naphthenic acids--is discharged into manmade holding structures and former mine pits. The resulting "ponds" attract migrating birds: Some 1,600 ducks died in 2008 after landing on a tailings pond built by the oil company Syncrude. And the waste leaks into the environment--almost three million gallons a day, according to the Pembina Institute's crunching of industry data.
We pile onto a bus, headed for what was once the most notorious tailings pond. The driver navigates the top of Tar Island Dyke, which separates the waste from the Athabasca River, 325 feet below. Decades of data have proven this dike an imperfect barrier. A 2007 University of Waterloo report said a thousand gallons of tailings water were seeping through the structure every minute.
When we reach the pond, it looks more like a massive sandbox than an aquatic body. Caterpillar tractors shape the sand into knolls and valleys. Suncor has moved the liquid waste to a safer pit and replaced it with sand, which in turn will be covered with topsoil and planted with 40 species of native trees and shrubs, including balsam poplar, trembling aspen, jack pine, willow, Saskatoon shrub, and red-osier dogwood. "We're converting it back to a forest," says Sean Wells, Suncor's manager of research engineering.
"My goal at Suncor is to be able to walk across every single tailings pond before I retire," says Wells, who is 45. In addition to cleaning up the existing ponds, he says, Suncor is developing technologies to avoid creating liquid tailings in the first place.
This hopeful story has some caveats, though. First, the waste has not disappeared. It has been moved elsewhere, and apparently Suncor has no definitive plans for its treatment. Wells says the industry is actively developing technologies to deal with "the tailings challenge."
Second, the reclaimed site will not look like the ecosystem Suncor found more than 40 years ago. The original system was mostly wetlands, which provide specialized habitat and help maintain water quality but are hard to re-create. The new ecosystem will be dominated by upland forest species that provide valuable timber. The reason is partly political, says Suncor's Shaw: Alberta has a pro-business government, and "the current regime wants to create as much productive forest as possible."
Finally, scientists question whether it would be possible to reconstruct a true functioning boreal forest--even if the oil companies wanted to. One problem: No one has yet mastered the art of reproducing these complicated ecosystems. Another: wildlife mortality and growth defects. Leah Bendell, an ecologist and geochemist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has introduced mallard ducklings, fathead minnows, and immature boreal toads and wood frogs into reclaimed wetlands at Alberta tar-sands sites. The fish and amphibians had unusually high death rates, and many tadpoles suffered deformities. The ducks faced restricted growth that decreased their chances of survival.