Oilfield workers on their way back to Alberta to resume oil sands production

This part of the disaster will waitRCMP photo

Workers for one of the largest oil sands companies affected by a massive wildfire in northern Canada will begin returning to the shuttered facilities on Thursday…

Meanwhile, the premier of the province of Alberta and the head of the Canadian Red Cross announced that residents of Fort McMurray, the oil-boom town that was evacuated last week because of the fire, would be offered direct financial aid.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a new ad hoc cabinet committee to coordinate federal relief efforts. Trudeau will tour the fire zone on Friday.

Ken Smith, President of Unifor Local 707, a union that represents 3,400 Suncor Energy Inc workers, said the company was starting to fly employees back to its oil sands base plant from Thursday.

“It will take a few days to get the plant up and in condition to start handling feed. The mine can get going as soon as the trucks and shovels are ready, but it will take the plant a bit longer to become functional,” Smith said…

Late Wednesday, Enbridge Inc said it had restarted its 550,000 barrel per day Line 18 pipeline after it was shut as a precaution. The line carries crude from Enbridge’s Cheecham terminal 380 kilometers south to the regional crude trading hub of Edmonton. Enbridge also said crews were on site at its facilities in the Fort McMurray region and confirmed its terminals were not damaged by the wildfire.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc was the first company to resume operations in the area, restarting its Albian Sands mines at a reduced rate. The facility can produce up to 255,000 bpd.

Syncrude, controlled by Suncor, restarted power generation at its oil sands mine in Aurora, north of the city, on Tuesday as it began planning to resume operations. The site has a total capacity of around 315,000 bpd.

I’m not surprised at the priorities established after this disaster. Dare I ask what percentage of profits will be allocated to rebuilding home and lives in Fort McMurray. Or will they continue to flow – like the oil – to benefit shareholders, first and foremost?

Alberta issues environmental order after oil sands heron deaths

Click to enlargePhoto by Denny Green

Alberta’s energy regulator…has ordered Syncrude Canada to develop a wildlife mitigation plan and publish more information following the death of 30 blue herons at an oil sands site in the Canadian province.

The Alberta Energy Regulator said on Saturday it had opened an investigation into the bird deaths at Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake site, which is about 40 km (25 miles) north of Fort McMurray.

The regulator said on Tuesday the investigation is still under way, but issued the environmental protection order nonetheless. It ordered Syncrude to collect water and soil samples, develop and publish daily public reports and submit a final report to the regulator…

In 2010, Syncrude was fined C$3 million ($2.29 million) for negligence in the 2008 deaths of 1,600 ducks in a toxic tailings pond, a case that fueled international concern about the environmental impact of developing Canada’s oil sands…

In November, the Alberta regulator cleared several oil sands operators of responsibility for the deaths of 196 waterfowl that landed on their toxic tailings ponds, saying poor weather forced the birds down.

I see. Birds should know by now they need to clear their travels with Alberta oil producers before setting off into changeable weather conditions.

Another view might hold that a key point of environmental regulations is to prevent wildlife deaths from fossil fuel-producers cruddification of the environment. Silly me.

Green jobs employ more Canadians than oil sands jobs

Canada’s green energy sector has grown so quickly and has become such an important part of the economy that it now employs more people than the oil sands.

About $25-billion has been invested in Canada’s clean-energy sector in the past five years, and employment is up 37 per cent, according to a new report from climate think tank Clean Energy Canada to be released Tuesday. That means the 23,700 people who work in green energy organizations outnumber the 22,340 whose work relates to the oil sands, the report says.

“Clean energy has moved from being a small niche or boutique industry to really big business in Canada,” said Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada. The investment it has gleaned since 2009 is roughly the same as has been pumped into agriculture, fishing and forestry combined, she said. The industry will continue to show huge growth potential, beyond most other business sectors, she added.

While investment has boomed, the energy-generating capacity of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and biomass plants has expanded by 93 per cent since 2009, the report says…

Not a priority, however, for the Conservatives running the Federal government. Big Oil still rules.

Not only does the oil industry still get more substantial subsidies, she said, it also eats up a good deal of the country’s diplomatic relations efforts – through the lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example…

As for the provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular should follow Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in getting into the renewable-energy game, Ms. Smith said. Still, the necessity for this shift is beginning to gain some traction, she said, noting that Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell said last week that the province has to “get off the oil train…”

The Clean Energy Canada report notes that much of the investment for Canada’s clean-tech expansion currently comes outside the country. Of the five largest investors since 2009, just one, Manulife Financial Corp., is Canadian. Two Japanese companies are in that top-five list, along with two German banking groups.

“The fact that foreign investors are coming to Canada to invest in our clean energy, tells us that we have a fantastic resource,” Ms. Smith said. “We need Bay Street to wake up and recognize this is where the puck is going.”

Gotta love Canadian sports metaphors. In a nation where hockey rules, the puck stops here is a legit phrase.

Primrose oil sands spill generates renewed scrutiny of oil sand production

Click to enlargeEd Kaiser/Edmonton Journal

In the annals of oil well blowouts and pipeline disasters, the 7,400 barrels of oily slush that oozed out of the mossy bogs of the boreal forest in northeast Alberta last summer may seem like a trivial matter.

No one was hurt in the accident, which spread across at least 17 acres in the Primrose oil sands field, and the most damage to wildlife came from the killing of about 70 frogs in a lake contaminated by the leak. It has since been drained.

But while the accident has so far been overshadowed by the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline south of the border, it has nevertheless stirred nervous misgivings throughout the oil sands industry and drawn an unusually intense response from Alberta regulators, who have traditionally had a cozy relationship with the oil companies.

In a move that has raised eyebrows in the industry, officials of the Alberta Energy Regulator have refused to accept the explanations for the cause of the accident by Canadian Natural Resources, the field’s operator and one of the country’s largest oil companies. In March, the agency also rejected the company’s bid to restart its operation until a complete investigation had been completed.

“The circumstances surrounding Primrose are a test case for both the industry and the regulator,” said Andrew Leach, a business professor at the University of Alberta. “The public needs to have confidence in the regulator that it can prevent these kinds of incidents.”

The full implications of the Primrose accident are still unclear, as are the causes of the accident. But the regulators’ new interest in what caused it has raised questions, more broadly, about the way oil companies are planning to tap Alberta’s richest deposits.

The Primrose well uses high-pressure steam to free the oil from the sands deep underground, allowing it to rise to the top. The technique — known as “huff and puff” — is vaguely similar to fracking, which instead of steam uses a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to unlock the trapped oil and has led to a surge in oil production in the United States.

At issue is whether the thick rock that traps the raw oil sands, keeping them from escaping to the surface, was fractured by high steam pressure applied during the production process — as environmentalists say was probable — or whether Canadian Natural Resources is correct in saying that the leak was simply a malfunction…

RTFA for the contradictory explanations of what caused the spill – and raises the potential for more of the same – or resolves questions in favor of the oil companies and their technology.

Most of the growth in Canadian oil output…is driven by projects that rely on steam pressure. Are spills the result of equipment failure – and therefore preventable with higher standards? Or are the spills a natural and inevitable result of huff-and-puffing steam pressure?

Warning on oil sands and climate hidden by the Harper government

Internal government documents show that Canada’s scientific and environmental bureaucracy does not share the Conservative government’s view that oil sands projects in Alberta have relatively little negative impact on the environment.

Postmedia News, a publisher that owns several major Canadian newspapers including The National Post in Toronto, obtained the previously confidential material through Canada’s access-to-information laws.

Continue reading

Obama delays Keystone pipeline decision to avoid 2012 elections – Canada isn’t waiting around for insecure Democrats

What real crop circles look like

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he will step up efforts to supply energy to Asia after Washington delayed a decision on whether to approve a new oil pipeline from Canada to the United States.

In a subtle warning to Washington, Harper told Chinese President Hu Jintao that providing energy to Asia was an important priority for Canada.

“This does underscore the necessity of Canada making sure that we are able to access Asia markets for our energy products,” Harper told reporters on Sunday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Hawaii. “That will be an important priority of our government going forward and I indicated that yesterday to the president of China.”

Citing health, safety and environmental concerns, President Barack Obama’s administration said it would now study a possible new route for TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL pipeline. The delay could end up killing the $7 billion project altogether if supporters back out or the administration is unable to chart a new route.

Health, safety and environment are the concerns voiced. Most are wholly illegitimate. I’d gladly discuss any real issues here – but, decades of experience as environment activist requires cutting through the political crap.

Canada is already the largest foreign supplier of oil, natural gas, electricity and uranium to the United States. The proposed pipeline has the capacity to move 700,000 barrels of crude produced from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Texas…

Harper’s conservative government has repeatedly voiced disappointment at the delay and some big businesses say the move by the Obama administration was purely political to push the decision out past the November 2012 election.

Certainly, the issues are being discussed. I started to watch a presentation on CNN, yesterday; but, the sophistry, lies and hypocrisy were at the level of a Republican “debate” on commerce with China. As soon as the so-called environmentalist said the oil was being transported to the Gulf of Mexico to be transshipped to our “arch enemy, China” – I changed the channel back to an FA Cup match.

As this article makes clear, the pipeline runs to the Gulf of Mexico because that’s where the refineries are. Cripes. If Canada had wanted to make China their primary customer they would have premised production from Alberta on getting to West Coast refineries from the beginning – as they will, now that Obama has put off yet another decision until after the 2012 elections.

As it stands, Canadians still must commit one way or the other on the much more critical ecological decision ranging from nuclear power generation to landscape regeneration before any expansion of oil sands production.

10,000 pipeline protesters circle White House

About 10,000 opponents of a proposed pipeline for carrying oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast surrounded the White House on Sunday – exactly a year before the 2012 election – seeking to pressure President Barack Obama to reject the project.

If approved, the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, to be built by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., would carry crude from the tar sands region in Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas, passing through six states.

Supporters such as oil industry groups and some labor unions say the pipeline would reduce U.S. reliance on oil from the volatile Mideast and create 20,000 jobs in a U.S. economy that desperately needs the boost.

Environmental groups despise the project and call it a needlessly risky method of producing dirty energy. They say the pipeline could leak, endangering drinking water. They say extracting the thick crude from tar sands is itself a greenhouse-gas producing, wasteful process. And they say the promise of jobs is a false one, claiming it would produce only about 6,000 temporary jobs…

The Keystone decision poses a political dilemma for Obama, with an approaching election that likely will hinge on the economy. He will inevitably anger one of his constituencies – either the unions supporting the project or environmentalists and others opposing it.

The Obama administration must issue a permit to approve Keystone because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border. Though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she’s “inclined” to approve the project, the final verdict rests with Obama, who recently said he will wait until after the State Department finishes its review of the proposal.

I support a couple of the environmental groups involved in this political battle. Doesn’t mean I think they’re completely in the right. When they stretch facts and presume statistical likelihoods of pipeline failure, oil spills resulting from pipelines transiting the United States north-to-south, they haven’t a leg to stand on. The number of failures in the lower 48 over the decades [and miles] of pipeline is negligible.

Similarly, the case for greenhouse gases expanding dramatically is grounded on the Canadian government deciding against building a nuclear powerplant to generate electricity for the production of oil from the Alberta sands.

The issue has to be decided on sound environmental practices. Whether or not you can have confidence on both governments doing the right thing on behalf of citizens of both countries? Can they be trusted to work to standards sufficiently high to protect the environment in Canada and the United States?

Deficient water checks achieving little at Canada oil sands

A government-sponsored scientific committee studying water monitoring in Canada’s oil sands has backed assertions that multibillion-dollar energy developments are polluting waterways and it urges more stringent oversight.

The report by the independent scientists, appointed by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, said an incendiary study by water ecologists last year appeared to be right in its contention that toxic substances downstream from the developments do not occur naturally.

An industry-funded body had long said heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic aromatic compounds, or PACs, found in the Athabasca River watershed north of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, occurred naturally as bitumen leached into the river…

The northern Alberta oil sands are the largest source of oil outside the Middle East and are the target of billions of dollars worth of development plans. However, the environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions, forest destruction and water pollution, are under heavy criticism by green groups…

In December, the federal panel reported “there was no evidence of science leadership to ensure that monitoring and research activities are planned and performed in a coordinated way”…

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said the report will be used by the province’s own newly appointed panel as it works to design a better monitoring system.

And as usual the “better monitoring system” won’t mean a damn if the system is thwarted by political malingering controlled by the corporations wallowing in the trough of their profits.

Same as it ever was.

Study identifies oil sands polluting Alberta river system

Oil sands operations are polluting the Athabasca River system, researchers say, contradicting the Alberta government’s assertions that toxins in the watershed are naturally occurring.

In a study likely to add more fuel to the environmental battle over oil sands development, researchers said mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium are among the toxins being released into the Athabasca, which flows north through the region’s major oil sands operations.

The findings of the study, co-authored by University of Alberta biological scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler, should be a signal for the Alberta government to finally consider limits on oil sands development, Schindler said.

“I really think it’s time to cut down the expansion until some of those problems and how to reduce them are solved,” he said in an interview.

The environmental impact of developing the oil sands, the biggest reserves of crude outside the Middle East, has been a topic of snowballing controversy in Canada and around the world. The Alberta government has devoted millions of dollars to defend the multibillion-dollar industry.

The latest research is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A government-supported agency, called the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, has published material as recently as 2009 saying that water quality in the Athabasca River was similar now to conditions before oil sands development. But Schindler said the RAMP monitoring and findings “violate every rule” of long-term study and his research showed the opposite.

Looking in from the outside, knowing something of comparable questions of geology, I have to wonder about the construction of the tests instituted by the government. I question why the insurgent study is after the fact; but, that often is grounded in questions ranging from finances to time constraints. The Alberta government had beaucoup time to produce definitive studies that would have/could have passed peer review. Obviously they haven’t.

Too often the quotient of short-term economic gain influences voters as thoroughly as it does politicians. I can’t hazard an opinion of comparative testing procedures and results – this morning; but, unless Canadians have bred some new species of human being that wants badly to be a politician in North America, questions take precedence over answers received, so far.