Impact of Alberta’s Oil Sands on Nearby Lakes

A CBC article regarding studies on the pollution of lakes up to 90 kilometers away from the Oil Sands includes the sentence, “The effect of the oil sands on the environment is highly controversial.” In reality, it shouldn’t be. The effect of the oil sands on the environment is flat out devastating. The controversy, in all its enormity, boils down to “is it worth it?” Are we, Canadians, in fact humans, willing to tolerate the damage caused by ripping this stuff out of the Earth only to use it in ways that create yet more pollution?

The economy says yes. In our fast-moving, ever-consuming Western hemisphere I have no doubts that what the economy says, goes, and little optimism for significant change. This study is a reminder, however, that there are serious problems with how our society is functioning and the economy’s dependence on such means of production and profit. Further, it is a reminder that in our dependence on oil we have yet to refine the aging process significantly enough to achieve and maintain standards of environmental protection and accountability.

In spite of conspicuous government and corporation propaganda to the contrary, the damage of this industry is continuous and growing. In many senses, as quickly as solutions are developed, the depth of the problems is found to be greater.

A recent study conducted in cooperation by scientists at Queen’s University and Environment Canada examined core samples from five lakes located around Fort McMurray, Alta. where there is ongoing oil sands mining and upgrading as well as samples from Namur lake, 90 Kilometers northwest. The study focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—known for being cancer-causing. Researchers chose to examine these particular chemicals because while they can occur naturally, the version created by burning petroleum in oil sands production is particular and traceable.

What they found was that levels of PAHs have increased by up to 23 times the background levels recorded in the early 1960s (prior to the oil sands expansion into that region)

This isn’t the first study to provide cause for alarm. In 2010 studies out of University of Alberta discovered deformed fish in Lake Athabasca, downstream from the oil sands. Therein was found tangible evidence that the pollution from the oil sands was changing the environment around us, and not necessarily for the better. This research later resulted in the federal-provincial environmental monitoring plan for the Alberta oil sands.

Aboriginal residents along the Athabasca river have long complained of traces of oil appearing in their waters and sick fish and animals. They have cried out with concerns for their health should they continue to consume the game hunted or caught on their land or in the river. Being forced to relinquish hunting and fishing traditions directly interferes with their ability to honor their history on their land.

Allan Adam, Chief of Alberta’s Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation told CBC that “many in the oil-sands region are tired of the Harper government’s unending push to weaken the country’s environmental laws.” Claiming higher cancer rates among its members and more catches of deformed fish, he says “We’ve been Idling No More since 2007.”

While currently stalled, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline has made uncountable headlines, covered from angles spanning the outrage of environmental groups, the projections of political analysts, the debates of Aboriginal groups on land and health concerns and of course, the praise of economists. Massive protests and political mazes have stalled the project allowing a current victory for protesters, however economists say it won’t last.

The pipeline intends to move oil from Alberta down through the United States. Some say that without it Canada stagnates its ability to capitalize on natural resources. Others say that the oil sands are far too large already and are not the way to move Canada’s economy foreword. Still, others raise historical and ongoing concerns about the honoring of already battered treaty agreements. Where the pipeline is routed to cross Aboriginal reserves there is a mixture of feelings to be considered. The potentially affected Aboriginal communities and their leaders have largely maintained strength against the project. There are some, unemployed and youth in particular, who are considering the pipeline a job opportunity. If it runs right through the reserve, they reason, the need for monitoring and maintenance will create on-reserve jobs.

With the flow, in Canada at least, of youth from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, all the way down through Ontario flowing always Westward for oil jobs, nobody in the west should consider themselves guaranteed a job just because a pipeline runs near them.

The Obama Administration aided the stall of the project by insisting heavier environmental precautions and protections be taken. Critics have yet to fully accept the environmental stance of the program however, arguing that such a project, or even such an industry, can never be environmentally sound. By its very nature, some claim oil production and pipelines are destructive to the Earth and are never spill-proof.

In an oil-dependent society it’s unlikely an answer is in the cards for the near future. Should the oil sands expand? Should the money funneling into them be used to revolutionize Canada’s energy creation systems to more reusable sources? Is that even possible? Today Canada, America, and the world at large remains undivided when it comes to what should be done. What has happened to our environment in the wake of large scale oil production, however, leaves little to the imagination.