Guest Column - Jonathan W. Martin
Can chemistry get the oil sands out of hot water?
By Jonathan W. Martin
Hot water is still the key ingredient for extracting bitumen from the oil sands and there is no denying the social, political, or environmental ‘hot water’ issues that continue to boil over in northern Alberta. Think tailings ponds, contaminated rivers, dead ducks and potentially elevated rates of cancer in downstream communities. Much of the concern stems from the heavy reliance of the industry on water, or the impacts that the industry may be having on ambient water quality. Are chemists doing enough to alleviate these problems? Water issues heated up in early 2010 because of two studies by David Schindler at the University of Alberta. The studies showed elevated deposition of contaminants around oil sands development, a result that was in conflict with conclusions drawn by the industry-funded Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program. The controversy spurred Environment Canada to design an environment-monitoring plan for the region. Although the plan has yet to be fully implemented, it is encouraging to see such rapid transformation in response to environmental chemistry research. Chemistry and sound science can clearly make a difference.
All this attention to chemicals escaping to the environment is important, but the elephant in the room demands attention too. Large tailings ponds already contain a billion cubic meters of acutely toxic water and inventories grow daily. This water is needed for the surface mining oil sands industry to operate — the water is continually recycled for the extraction process — but eventually this water must be returned to the natural environment. How will this be done? The going strategy is not yet widely discussed, but tailings ponds will soon begin to disappear, only to be replaced by permanent end-pit lakes. In these structures it is hoped that natural processes will detoxify the water such that it may eventually be safely discharged. The first end-pit lake will be commissioned this year, yet a report by the Royal Society of Canada points to many unknowns and highlights that these lakes could still be toxic 50 years down the road. Surely there must be a better way and surely chemistry can help!
Many chemists and chemical engineers already contribute to the science of water and oil sands, but primarily on the extraction and processing side. Research on non-aqueous bitumen extraction techniques, for example, may get the oil sands industry out of hot water. This is important work, but it won’t make current tailings ponds or future end-pit lakes disappear. We still have little understanding of what chemicals are present in tailings ponds, let alone authentic standards to quantify their concentrations or to study their toxicity and environmental behaviour. Much more analytical, organic and environmental chemistry research is needed before a solution can develop.
Is there too little funding for such research? The oil sands industry is eager to participate in water reclamation studies and why wouldn’t Canadian funding agencies be keen to back research that may solve widely acknowledged problems? NSERC, for example, funds major research projects through its Strategic Project Grants in targeted areas, including Environmental Science and Energy. It is surprising, then, that none of the projects awarded in 2012 had anything to do with oil sands. As a member of the internal review panel, I recall how the room went quiet when another panel member asked, “Where are all the oil sands applications?” There were none.
Perhaps the problem is that chemists are not trained with the right mixture of knowledge to tackle multidisciplinary environmental issues? Philip Jessop’s guest column, “Are you Ready for a Green Wave?” in ACCN last February, points out that high school graduates are “charged up” to help the environment and would be well served by universities offering multidisciplinary chemistry training that includes toxicology. Such scientists are exactly what is needed, but Jessop argues that this sort of training is generally not occurring. This is at least part of the problem.
The water issues posed by oil sands development are large and will require a multidisciplinary approach to be solved. Chemists have a huge role to play, but we need to work with biologists, toxicologists and engineers to demonstrate the real-world validity of any solution. In such a team environment, the added benefit is that students will effectively receive multidisciplinary training, even without a formalized program.
Can chemistry get the oil sands out of hot water? I believe so, but not on its own and not in isolation.
Jonathan W. Martin is an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology and an environmental analytical chemistry researcher, studying the effects of pollutants on humans, wildlife and natural systems.
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