Oilsands industry needs to speed up environmental fixes, panel says

Oilsands producers should speed up development of new technologies to temper the environmental effects of the industry, a new study commissioned by the Harper government suggests.

Expert panel finds no 'silver bullet' for greenhouse gases or other pollution

Oilsands tech solutions

8 years ago
Duration 5:19
Eric Newell chaired an expert panel that recommended the industry speed up the pace of solving its pollution problems

Oilsands producers should speed up development of new technologies to temper the environmental effects of the industry, a new study commissioned by the Harper government suggests.

An expert panel from the Council of Canadian Academies pointed to problems with tailings ponds and greenhouse gas emissions as key priorities for oilsands producers.

There are emerging technologies that have the potential to address environmental impacts, but it will take strong leadership, continued investment and some risk-taking to make them work, according to Eric Newell, a former Syncrude CEO who chaired the panel.

"Technology will be an important part of the path forward," Newell said. "For example, if current long-term R&D projects prove successful, resulting technologies could reduce greenhouse gas emissions per barrel below that of U.S. average crude oil by 2030."

According to 2014 projections, as oilsands production is ramped up, greenhouse gas emissions could double by 2025. In 2014, before oil prices fell, the industry had ambitious plans to expand production.

But Canada has committed  to lowering its carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 as part of global efforts to curb climate change.

Need to work fast

"To reduce the absolute footprint we found, we need more transformative technologies and there are some good ones, that the panel did point out but they would take a lot of collaboration and work to develop and deploy at a pace that would make a difference in the next 10 to 15 years," Newel said in an interview on CBC News Network's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Natural Resources Canada commissioned the study, titled Technological Prospects for Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Oil Sands, which was researched by an expert panel of environmentalists, academics, scientists and industry representatives.

"We looked at five areas, greenhouse gas emission, air pollution, water use, tailings and land use," Newell said.

The panel reviewed the environmental footprint of the three main bitumen processing activities: surface mining extraction, in situ extraction, and upgrading. It concluded there's a lot of work to be done to protect air, land and water around these activities and recommended concentrating on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from in situ extraction, which is the biggest source of emissions.

Need a new 'silver bullet'

The panel found there is a range of technologies available in the short term that might help reduce emissions that cause climate change if widely adopted, but "transformative technologies" will still be needed to achieve absolute reductions in oilsands production is to grow.

Investing in those technologies will involve financial risk, the panel found.

"The panel is kind of urging the industry and policymakers to get moving in those areas," Newel said.

Similarly, there is no "silver bullet" to solve the problem of treating wastewater, which can kill wildlife, seep into the ground water and pollute water courses.

The panel pointed to government policies, which fail to encourage the oilsands industry to clean up its act, including lack of regulations on discharge standards for treated water and an Alberta carbon tax that "is only a modest economic incentive for firms to invest in new technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions."


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