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Canada Pays Environmentally for U.S. Oil Thirst

The tar-like oil sands are mined and processed to make synthetic oil.
The tar-like oil sands are mined and processed to make synthetic oil. (By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

As technology and ever-bigger machines reduced the cost of extracting oil from the sands, private companies rushed in, investing nearly $100 billion in mines and sprawling processing plants. They were expected to produce 1 million barrels a day by 2020. That goal was passed in 2004, and the companies are racing to double the output soon and triple it by 2015.

They dig out shallower seams and inject steam underground to liquefy and pump out the deeper sands. Heating the water and processing the crude bitumen -- a heavy, viscous oil -- produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is linked to global warming. The oil sands mines have become the largest contributor to Canada's increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Pembina's research.

"If you grow production of the oil sands, you are going to grow greenhouse emissions," Ruigrok said.

The oil companies are mulling ways to capture and bury carbon dioxide. Environmentalists want the companies to offset their greenhouse emissions by paying for conservation or alternative energy programs; Shell Canada has agreed to fund such programs to compensate for part of its carbon emissions. But oil company executives say that if their production is curbed, the world will buy the oil from worse polluters.

"If we chose not to develop the resource, there would still be oil produced elsewhere in the world," Gordon Lambert, a senior vice president of Suncor Energy, said in an interview from Calgary.

Critics also question the wisdom of using natural gas to heat and upgrade the oil sands. "We are taking a cleaner energy source and turning it into something that produces a lot of emissions when you produce it and when you burn it," said Dale Marshall, a climate change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation in Ottawa.

Those processes are "putting unacceptable pressure on the environment," said Julia Langer, director of the global threats program of World Wildlife Fund-Canada in Toronto.

They point to threats to the Athabasca River, which flows like an azure ribbon from the Columbia Icefield in the Rocky Mountains. It tumbles through cool evergreen forests, wends through Alberta and finally joins the Peace River near Saskatchewan to form a teeming delta that is a major North American intersection for migrating birds.

Mining operations have been permitted to take twice the amount of water from the river than is used annually by Calgary, a city of 1 million people, according to Pembina. The group's report predicts that the oil sands mines will increase withdrawals by 50 percent in the next six years.

Native communities on the river say that further reductions in the low winter flows will make the river unhealthy and that the northern pike, walleye and burbot may not survive. And they believe the waters have been contaminated by someone. Native residents of Fort Chipewyan, a village of 1,200 on the shores of Lake Athabasca, have experienced abnormally high rates of rare cancers. Federal and provincial medical investigators are trying to determine the cause.

Industry officials say they do not pollute the river, and instead reuse the water they take as often as 17 times. The leftover emerges as a black, foul liquid collected in tailing ponds. The ponds have grown; one dam is among the largest in the world. The mining companies must fire off propane cannons to scare away migrating birds from the toxic waters.

Industry officials say they are confident they will find a way to cap the ponds and solve the other problems. "I don't think there is a silver bullet that is the single answer," said Greg Stringham, vice president of the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "But there are five or six technologies that are promising."

The mines are being carved out of Canada's vast Boreal forest, a continental swath of timber and wetlands that ecologists say helps reduce global warming.

From her 25-foot-high perch in the driver's cabin of a Caterpillar 797, the world's largest truck, Michelle Noer acknowledges that the landscape of Syncrude's Aurora pit mine "looks pretty rough right now.

"If we just dug it up, I probably wouldn't be able to do it," said Noer, 37, who came from lush wine country in British Columbia for the work and high pay. "But we do reclaim it. And we do need the oil."

One of the early Syncrude mining sites to be reclaimed now boasts 40-foot jack pine and spruce trees and sings with the call of songbirds that flit over hiking trails. "Beware of the Wildlife," a sign warns.

"It doesn't look bad. But it certainly isn't Boreal forest," said Pembina's Woynillowicz. "We have to wait and see if this ecosystem they have put back actually is going to be sustainable."

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