Just one week after Al Jazeera discovered that regulatory responsibility for Alberta, Canada’s controversial tar sands would be handed over to a fossil-fuel funded corporation, federal scientists have found that the area’s viscous petroleum deposits are surrounded by a nearly 7,500-square-mile ring of mercury.
Canadian government scientists have found that levels of mercury — a potent neurotoxin which has been found to cause severe birth defects and brain damage — around the region’s vast tar sand operations are up to 16 times higher than regular levels for the region. The findings, presented by Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk at an international toxicology conference, showed that the 7,500 miles contaminated are “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.”
The Canadian government touts Alberta’s oil sands as the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world, next to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The region’s heavy crude oil is mixed with clay, bitumen, and a good deal of sand — hence the name “oil sands.” This makes for a unique and energy-intensive extraction process that some scientists say produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil. Environment Canada has said it expects production emissions from tar sands to hit 104 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020 under current expansion plans.
Giant oil companies across the United States are currently investing in Canada’s tar sands as part of their role in the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta all the way to Texas. The pipeline would double imports of tar sands oil into the United States and transport it to refineries on the Gulf Coast and ports for international export. The oil sands industry itself is undergoing a major expansion, powered by $19 billion a year in investments, according to Bloomberg News.
Mercury pollution is just the latest contamination-related environmental woe to hit the tar sands. In May of this year, leaks of the oil started popping up in Alberta, and haven’t yet stopped. In September, the company responsible for the leaks was ordered to drain a lake so that contamination on the lake’s bottom could be cleaned up. By September 11, the leaks had spilled more than 403,900 gallons — or about 9,617 barrels — of oily bitumen into the surrounding boreal forest and muskeg, the acidic, marshy soil found in the forest.
Environment Canada’s research on the mercury pollution reportedly suggested that tar sands development has created a “bullseye” of contamination, with the highest levels of mercury found in the middle. The research also included indications that the toxin was building up in some of the area’s wildlife, with elevated levels being found in some birds’ eggs. Mercury pollution is particularly disconcerting because of its ability to bioaccumulate, meaning it tends to become more concentrated as it moves up the food chain.
The contamination’s reveal comes just one week after it was revealed that the Alberta government would hand over regulatory responsibility for the province’s tar sands industry to a corporation that’s funded entirely by Canada’s oil, coal and gas industry. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) said it would take over the duties of the now defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) — which was funded in part by taxpayers — and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
The shift to the AER as the main environmental regulator in Alberta is part of the provincial government’s plan to streamline the approval process for oil companies. It’s drawn concern from environmentalists in Alberta, who are worried that the AER’s financial backing from the fossil fuel industry makes the group too close to the industry it’s supposed to regulate.