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Alberta aims to streamline ‘in situ’ tar sands permit process

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that, “The Alberta government and Canada’s oil sands industry are working on a controversial new plan to make it easier for companies to get environmental permission for certain types of projects.”

“Under a major new rule change being considered by Alberta’s Environment Ministry, an impact assessment …may no longer be required for most new in situ oil sands projects. Instead, industry would agree to abide by a ‘code of practice’, similar to the rules governing companies that drill wells for conventional light oil.”

“Because in situ projects use wells rather than open-pit mines to extract bitumen, the industry has argued they are similar to light oil projects, and should be approved similarly.”

“In situ projects don’t excavate enormous volumes of earth to produce oil sands bitumen. Instead, they inject huge volumes of high-pressure steam into bitumen-bearing rock. The steam melts out the bitumen, which is then collected and brought to the surface with horizontal wells.”

“In situ produces more greenhouse gas emissions than mining, but creates less surface disturbance. In situ projects also rely primarily on brackish, non-potable water to power their operations, while mines typically pump fresh river water.”

“But academics and environmentalists strongly disagree that in situ is more benign. ‘These projects have the potential to affect wildlife and groundwater over an area the size of Florida. And their air pollution intensities are enormous,’ said Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.”

As noted in a February 2009 campaign blog, National Geographic reports that, “In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels (of oil that are economically recoverable today), can use up to twice as much energy as mining because it requires so much steam. Most of the energy to heat the water or make steam comes from burning natural gas…”

A draft plan for this proposed permit process is expected prior to the end of the year.

The Globe and Mail article is at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/alberta-aims-to-streamline-permit-process/article1309365/?.

A summary of the National Geographic article on the impacts of the tar sands on water can be read in this campaign blog, http://canadians.org/campaignblog/?p=104.