Wednesday, 13 May 2015


It's About Time Alberta Cleans Up Their Act (Literally)

A bit of background information/vocabulary to start us off so that we are all on the same page here.

Tailings ponds are “engineered dam and dyke system[s]...  used as settling basin/storage container[s] for the mixture of water, sand, clay and residual oil that is left over after oil sands processing. Once in the pond, the sand quickly sinks to the bottom, and the water from the top three metres is recycled” (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers). The tailings left in the pond present large problems to drilling industries. While the heavier sand descends to the bottom and the water rises to the top, the middle layer, often referred to as mature fine tailing, is “made up of fine clay particles [which] remain suspended in water for long periods of time, making it necessary to expand tailings facilities or find new technology to speed up this process” (Shell Canada). Tailings ponds inhibit further drilling for long periods of time while the mature fine tailings gradually descend to the bottom of the pond. Furthermore, the heavier sand at the bottom of these ponds remains a soupy liquid, making it difficult to manage.

In Edmonton, Alberta, water pollution caused by oil sands is at an all time high. Companies drilling for oil must follow regulations put in place to ensure that tailings ponds get cleaned up and do not pollute the province’s waters. And yet heading into 2015, the Alberta government has been forced to make necessary changes to these guidelines due to the extreme non-committance of oil companies in regards to cleanup efforts. Global News states that “the Alberta government has released a new plan for managing oil sands’ tailings ponds that it says will encourage companies to generate less of the toxic waste water and clean it up sooner”. The Environment Minister, Kyle Fawcett, has said that now, there will be parameters set in place concerning the size of tailings ponds and possible fines if these boundaries are pushed. The government is hoping to push companies in their research for new oil drilling waste management technologies. In 2009, similar efforts were made to cut back on the amount of pollution due to drilling and the number of tailings ponds, yet the regulations put in place were not met. This time, the government is determined to make it work, stating that they “have to make sure that it’s more expensive to break the rules than it is to comply with the rules” (Global News).

Fletcher Kent is Global Edmonton's longest-serving reporter.

Shell Canada is an example of a company taking initiative in their cleanup efforts by announcing the start-up of their commercial-scale Atmospheric Fines Drying system. They note that “[their] challenge is to develop and apply technologies that will accelerate the pace at which tailings can be reclaimed” (Shell Canada).

The Globe and Mail further explains that, "The (Shell) plant adds a chemical to the tailings, called a flocculant, that helps to thicken them into a sludge”. Flocculants are chemicals that promote flocculation by causing colloids and other suspended particles in liquids to aggregate, forming a floc. Flocculants are used in water treatment processes to improve the sedimentation or filterability of small particles. Some examples of chemicals used as flocculants: alum, aluminium chlorohydrate, aluminium sulfate, calcium oxide, calcium hydroxide, iron(III), chloride iron(II), sulfate polyacrylamide, polyDADMAC, sodium aluminate, and sodium silicate. The Globe and Mail continues to explain “[the Shell plant] then sprays the sludge onto the sides of a 30-hectare sloping pit, where water drips from the tailings and leaves behind a solid substance that looks a bit like wet sand. Shell said the technological breakthroughs lie both in the flocculant it is using, and the process of placing down the sludge in such a way that water efficiently drains away."

Wapisiw Lookout before reclamation 

(Wapisiw Lookout was a storage area for oil sands tailings between 1967 and 1997)

Wapisiw Lookout after reclamation

(Transformed oil sands tailings pond into a surface solid enough to be actively re-vegetated and reclaimed. Once complete, Wapisiw Lookout (formerly Pond 1) will be a 220-hectare area of mixed wood forest and a small wetland, supporting a variety of plants and wildlife.)

Of course, this new system could help reverse damages to the province’s waters. If it works, the new approach to tailings could mute some of the environmental criticism directed at the industry, whose waters are laced with heavy metals and other dangerous pollutants, and whose tailings ponds are an ugly reminder of the oil sands' environmental toll. Yet on the other hand, we see how Alberta is Canada’s main oil provider and produces most of the profit for our country in this sector.
Another issue to look at is the use of water from the Athabasca River. In terms of legal and ethical struggles, the use of this water is being debated between First Nations and drilling companies. Along with their new tailings pond guidelines, the Alberta government has also released rules on the amount of water that is allowed to be used by oil industries for the sand flats. Global News states that:
The average total allowable amount is to be cut nearly in half. No withdrawals will be allowed during low-flow periods, except for older mines. The government says the guidelines will preserve the river’s ecosystem and still allow for aboriginal water use.
While this may be the aim of the government, the new plan concerning the Athabasca River is still being challenged in court by area First Nations who wish to take full control of the waters.

Last but not least, there are issues concerning waterfowls who land within tailing ponds and drown as a result of oiling. If anything, this should push companies to try and clean up their messes.

Watch this video to hear about other efforts being put in place to keep waterfowl from landing in tailings ponds:

Who here believes it's about time Alberta cleans up their act? Isn't it about time that we repay the environment for its natural resources by keeping it clean? How can we keep one of our country's biggest sources of income afloat while also balancing the needs of the environment, its wildlife, and other humans such as the First Nations? Do you believe that Shell Canada's proposal is a longterm fix or will it only resolve certain environmental issues for a short while? Or will it even work at all?

Stay sassy readers and stay tuned for a post on Unit 3 soon (I'm going a bit backwards here),


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1 comment:

  1. Hey! I am all for Alberta 'cleaning up it's act'. It's high time we took responsibility for the damage done to our environment, especially with our oil sands. In my opinion, Canada needs to really step up and start making positive changes. I know the oil sands are a big source of income for Canada as a country, as well as individual families. My Dad's best friend, in fact, works as an electrical engineer at the oil sands near Fort McMurray. He used to run his own electrical business in Banff, but he hit hard times as the population dwindled. To keep his family afloat, he was forced to go out West. So needless to say, the oil sands are a complicated issue. In my opinion, Canada can't really afford to completely cut out one of our main sources of income - just think of the uproar it would cause. On the other hand, as this oil price drop demonstrates, we need to seriously cut down our dependence on oil as a society and work to develop renewable sources of energy, rather than wasting technologies on an expendable resource.