Alberta tar sands: Profit, but at what cost?
The Alberta tar sands are quickly becoming the largest industrial project on earth, yet not all Canadians are aware of the rapid pace of growth and its impact on our environment, especially on our freshwater supply.
Impact of tar sands on our water
Extraction of bitumen from the tar sands uses at least three times as much freshwater per barrel of oil as conventional oil operations, much of which is being drawn from Alberta’s Athabasca River. While a small amount of this water is recycled, 90% never returns to the river. Instead, it ends up in the toxic lakes known as tailings ponds. The toxic heavy metals and other hydrocarbon pollutants within these ponds leak 11 million litres of waste into the surrounding ecosystems daily.
Saving our freshwater supply and maintaining its cleanliness is in the hands of both the Canadian government and the oil industry. We need adequate monitoring of our water because neither industry nor government is certain of the full impact of this slick tar. Regulations based on sound scientific research must set out when and how much water can be withdrawn in order to ensure that ecosystems have a fighting chance at survival.
Existing regulations like Alberta’s Directive 074, which requires oil companies to clean up the toxic tailings waste, must be enforced. Moreover, industry should actually be held to the consequences for noncompliance, such as paying fines or losing one’s permit to operate.
Change our perspective
The Canadian Government has decided that tar sands are important for the Canadian economy. Yes, this may be true, but we need to remember that there are alternatives to power our future – alternatives that promote sustainability of life’s important resource: water. For example, although renewable energy technologies may not be able to completely replace energy from oil, why not increase investment into research and development on renewables? Doing so can only help our environment, our economy (and our chances of achieving a sustainable earth).
On a final point, why not make cleaning up those tailings ponds and recovering the 90% of water that doesn’t return to the Athabasca River a priority? Initiatives exist currently, but we need more!
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