How much oil is left in Alberta

Nightmare made of tar

A road in the middle of nowhere in the Canadian forest. Small trucks and heavy trucks thunder past. A tangle of factory chimneys and pipelines extends to the horizon.

"Over there you can see the chimneys of the processing plant and the upgrader. And when you breathe in, you smell the oil that is being produced here."

Dark smoke rises from the chimneys, flickers of gas flames and brown dust covers cars, factory buildings and the asphalt of the street. Cannon shots ring out every few seconds.

In the north of the Canadian province of Alberta there are huge fields of oil sands. On an area larger than England, there are tar deposits underground, from which oil can be extracted. Lots of oil. According to projections, around 170 billion barrels - that's more than 27 trillion liters. After Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world. A steady well of oil in a politically stable country.

"This long-term supply of oil is very reassuring, both for the technology and for the investors. The oil does not bubble up here as quickly as it does in the North Sea, for example, but it can be extracted slowly and steadily. You can see, how much oil is available and don't have to trust another country's pipelines. "

Ecologist Lee Foote of the University of Alberta in Edmonton explains that the oil has been extracted since the late 1960s. In an area almost the size of Hamburg, the mining companies cut down the coniferous forest, drained bogs, removed the soil and dug holes more than 70 meters deep. The pits already occupy an area six times the size of the Garzweiler open-cast lignite mine. And that is just the beginning. The more the oil price rises, the bigger the wound will become - and the more obvious the ecological catastrophe.

Cheryl Robb equips her visitor with a helmet and protective goggles. Then the press officer for Syncrude Canada Ltd. the heavy door to a factory hall in the group's research center stops and smiles as it yells against the noise.

"The stuff here is the oil sands. It's made up of grains of sand surrounded by a layer of water and bitumen, a type of tar. Because of this layer of water between the sand and the bitumen, we use a water extraction process to separate the bitumen from the sand. "

It takes two tons of oil sands to produce one barrel, i.e. 159 liters of oil. They are mixed with hot water to form a kind of pulp. The heavy grains of sand sink to the ground, the lighter bitumen floats on the surface. In a further processing plant called "upgrader" the long carbon chains are then split, sulfur and heavy metals are fished out and the tough bitumen is transformed into a kind of liquid crude oil. The whole process consumes huge amounts of water, which is recycled many times and in the process becomes increasingly enriched with pollutants and salts that are naturally contained in the oil sands. In the end, a highly toxic broth remains. Syncrude and the other companies are looking for ways to neutralize them. But it is still simply being dumped in the open air.

About 40 kilometers north of the city of Fort McMurray, the chimneys of the largest oil sands mine in the area protrude into the gray sky. A huge industrial desert where, until a few decades ago, there was an endless forest. A white pickup truck stops. A woman from the security service gets out of the car and asks for ID. Nathan Lemphers knows this procedure. The oil sands specialist works at the Pembina Institute, a private research organization that deals with energy and climate issues.

"If you guys want to carry on that would be great we don't want anybody to stop here."

The security officer logs the names, then her pickup Lemphers follows for a few kilometers before she turns off. Lemphers stops next to a large lake. In some places it has an oily shimmer. Despite the freezing cold, the water is not frozen. Crooked scarecrows in orange and yellow safety vests stand on the sandy shore.

"What you can hear in the background are noise deterrent systems for migratory birds that fly through this area. The cannon shots are supposed to chase the birds away so that they do not end up on the huge debris pools that have been set up all over the place."

A viscous, poisonous cocktail made of oil residues, naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, salt, ammonia, arsenic, selenium, mercury and other heavy metals from oil sands production wafts through them. All residue basins together already take up 170 square kilometers. That is roughly the size of the island of Fehmarn. And 200 million liters of poisonous broth are added every day. Broth that is often still warm. In winter, the residue basins are often the only open water bodies in the region and thus a fatally seductive target for migratory birds. Many residue basins are located directly on the banks of the Athabasca River, only separated from the river by a dike. David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is very concerned about this.

"All of these basins pose a threat to the river if one of the dikes should break. Especially in winter you would have no chance of getting the toxic residues out of the river again. The river is covered with ice for five to six months a year. The substances would spread downstream to the Slave River, Great Slave Lake and possibly the Mackenzie River. That would be a disaster for the entire system. "

A system that is home to the Peace Athabasca Delta, one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world. Numerous migratory bird routes cross here and make the region one of the most important breeding areas in North America.

"My name is Dr. Kevin Timoney. I am an ecologist and I do a lot of research up in north eastern Alberta on the ecology of the Peace and the Athabasca delta ecosystems."

It is precisely these ecosystems that David Schindler's colleague Kevin Timoney from the independent environmental research firm Treeline Ecological Research is concerned with. In numerous studies he has examined the effects of oil sands production on the environment.

"The leaks in the residue basin are a very big problem. The companies try to catch as much of the toxins that have seeped away as possible. And they succeed 99 percent of the time. But there are so many leaks that even one percent that they do." escapes, adding up over the years to hundreds of millions of liters of toxic residues that end up in the groundwater. And once they are in the groundwater, there is no way of getting them out of there. "

The oil sands industry not only endangers groundwater, but also rivers. In many places in northern Alberta, the oil sands formations are on the surface of the earth. Streams and rivers that flow through them wash out pollutants and take them with them. David Schindler:

"Both the provincial government and the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association have therefore stated for years that these large mines would not emit any pollutants that would then end up in the Athabasca River. They claim that all the substances identified came from natural sources."

They cited the results of their monitoring program as evidence of this. But David Schindler had his doubts about the complete innocence of the industry. In 2007 he started his own investigation.

"We examined the water catchment areas both in winter and in summer and compared the pollution levels of the Athabasca River just above and below the oil sands mines. We were able to show that industry accounts for a large proportion of the pollution of the river."

Significantly more pollutants were found in the water downstream of the mines than upstream. He and his colleagues also examined the snow and were able to prove that large amounts of air pollutants accumulate in it, which escape from the chimneys of the oil treatment plants. When the snow melts in spring, these substances are washed into the rivers and lakes. In the water of the Athabasca River, the researchers found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nickel, mercury, thallium, cadmium, lead, zinc and many other heavy metals. Schindler:

"The concentrations were relatively low, as the Athabasca River delivers an average of 700 cubic meters per second of clean water into the oil sands, so that the pollutants are greatly diluted. The individual substances are not harmful in these small amounts. However, nobody has yet Looking at the effects of all these substances together. For the individual polycyclic aromatic compounds, on the other hand, there are no toxicity guidelines. They are always considered in their entirety. And here we found concentrations that had proven to be toxic in other studies. "

There is an urgent need to investigate how the river's pollution affects the animals and people who use the water, demands David Schindler. His study was published in 2010. In response, the governments of Alberta and Canada announced exactly such investigations. Nothing has happened to this day.

Nathan Lemphers descends a sandy embankment to the Athabasca River. Ice floes crack together on the river and slide north. Where it did not have to give way to the oil sand pits, light boreal coniferous forest pushes up to the banks.

"We are also concerned about the Canadian forest caribou, an endangered species both in Alberta and across Canada. 13 herds live here in the tar sands region. Twelve of them are acutely threatened. The tar sands industry is either completely destroying more and more habitat or divided by roads and pipeline routes. "

The forest caribou could finally be doomed by a new conveyor technology. Only parts of the oil sand deposits can be extracted in open-cast mining. Much larger amounts are so deep in the subsurface that they can only be obtained with the help of a process called "in situ". The mining companies send hot liquid or steam underground through boreholes, heat it for two to three months and then pump the molten bitumen to the surface. The sand and with it many of the pollutants remain underground, there is no need for open residue basins or large open-cast pits. That is why the in-situ process has long been considered a beacon of hope for solving environmental problems. David Schindler, however, fears that the closely spaced boreholes, roads and pipeline routes will dissect the ecosystem so much that the caribou will lose their last refuge. Schindler:

"The area in which the in situ process can be used is huge. Larger than England. Right now the government and industry plan is to exploit these tar sands as soon as possible."

The hunger for oil has already left a major wound in the Canadian forest. A wound that is about to make itself felt far beyond the borders of Alberta. Five percent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions already come from oil sands production. And this value will increase, predicts the environmental scientist Nathan Lemphers of the Pembina Institute.

"In situ mining is much more energy intensive than mining operations, on a per barrel basis it is 2.5 times more carbon intensive than mining operations."

The in-situ process is much more energy-intensive than open-cast mining, he says. Two and a half times as many greenhouse gases are released per barrel of oil. Because in order to generate the necessary heat to melt the bitumen underground, huge amounts of natural gas have to be burned. The gas mixture used also has a high sulfur content, so that more than three times as much sulfur dioxide is released into the air during in-situ production as during open-cast mining. Acid rain is the result. This is a big problem for the regions that are in the slipstream of the oil sands industry, says Nathan Lemphers.

"In the province of Saskatchewan, increasing acidification of the lakes is already being observed, which is likely to increase the more mining companies switch from open-cast mining to the in-situ process. In 2015, the in-situ process will dominate the oil sands industry. As a result Acid rain will increase in the wind vane of the turbines. This is particularly problematic for the people who depend on the lakes in northern Saskatchewan for a living. "

And that's not all. David Schindler, Nathan Lemphers and many of their colleagues also fear that if the subsurface is heated, pollutants could be released from the oil sands and get into the groundwater. The area's aquifers have hardly been explored, and the consequences are incalculable.

Fort McKay is a small, indigenous community in the middle of the oil sands fields. The community center is the only two-story house in the village. A dozen people have sat on brown wooden chairs in the large event hall. Including a 70-year-old woman in a long fur coat, with deep black hair and mint green painted fingernails. The ward doctor, John O'Connor, invited. The authorities have been warning against drinking the tap water for a week. There, high amounts of trihalomethanes and other substances were discovered that are produced when water is disinfected. The lady in the fur coat wants to know whether the oil sands companies are responsible for the contaminated water. Everyone would know that something went wrong at night. John O'Connor says no. Such substances always arise when water is mixed with chlorine to make it sterile. That is done in every waterworks, but normally the amounts of pollutants are negligibly small. So far, no one has been able to say why, of all places, Fort McKay had such high values. He fails to dispel the lady's distrust. It's too deep for that. Almost everyone in attendance has at least one family history of cancer. In some communities downstream from the oil sands fields, the situation is even more dire. John O'Connor knows that very well.

"In 2006, I worked as a doctor in a community further downstream, Fort Chipewyan. The place is completely isolated on the Athabasca River. I was the only doctor there and I noticed that the cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan was 30 percent higher than in comparable communities A study by the Alberta Cancer Board confirmed my observations in 2009. To date, it is unclear why such a small, isolated community of 1200 people, 80 percent of whom live as hunters, fishermen, and gatherers, has such a high cancer burden Has."

Among the cancer cases at Fort Chipewyan are leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, and at least two cases of bile duct cancer, an extremely rare disease that statistically affects 1 in 100,000 people. The Alberta Cancer Board study was able to rule out genetic causes for the high cancer rates. And most of the inhabitants live as hunters and gatherers of game, fish, berries and herbs. None of these foods have been known to increase the risk of cancer. O'Connor:

"Even the smoking rate in Fort Chipewyan is lower than in places of comparable size. Maybe it's just bad luck. It's always a possibility. On the other hand, the residents of Fort Chipewyan have been complaining about strange changes in their environment for about 15 years. The meat of freshly killed animals is often bad, and the fish they catch have more and more malformations and tumors. "

Numerous studies have shown deformities and tumors in fish from the Athabasca River. The reasons for this are unclear. David Schindler's study shows that the oil sands industry pollutes the Athabasca River with pollutants. Many of these substances are carcinogenic. But to date there has not been a scientifically reliable study that has examined the reasons for the malformations or the high cancer rate, even if the health authorities of Alberta have been announcing such an investigation for a long time.

Nathan Lemphers has reached the last stop on his tour. A small lake, idyllically situated in the middle of a hilly spruce forest. A beaver must have been here recently. A freshly felled tree lies on the frozen lake.

"This is Gateway Hill, Syncrude's only piece of land that has been renatured to government standards, 104 hectares. It is a former spoil dump. So this is the soil that was removed elsewhere to get to the oil sands below Syncrude planted trees here for 20 or 30 years and now the beaver has even returned. That is a really great achievement! But it is only 0.15 percent of the disturbed area. So the industry still has a long way to go especially when you consider that the renaturation of the mine holes and the residue basins will be much more difficult than that of the unpolluted spoil heaps. "

When the last chunk of oil sand has been pulled out of a pit and the last borehole has been exhausted, the mine operators are obliged to renature the area, i.e. to create a new landscape that fulfills ecological functions similar to those previously destroyed.

The University of Alberta in Edmonton is south of downtown, wedged between two arterial roads. In the brown, eight-story building of the life sciences, Rebecca Rooney's office is at the end of a winding corridor: a windowless little room full of files and books.

"In my doctoral thesis, I compared natural wetlands with those that the mining companies have already created on a trial basis."

Wetlands are a very significant part of the boreal ecosystem in northern Alberta. They penetrate the spruce and larch forests and store large amounts of water in the low-precipitation system. Moors represent 65 percent of the original vegetation in this region.

"Three quarters of these areas are dominated by one or two plant communities that are typical of this region. But there was not even one of these plant communities in any of the artificial wetlands. What they create is something completely new and different."

In principle, that would not be a problem as long as the new wetlands fulfill the same ecological functions as the old ones.

"The snails, worms, insects, spiders, fish and birds are adapted to these natural wetlands. The plants there serve them as living space, as food or as a refuge from enemies. If they replace the plants with completely different ones in such a system, changes the habitat so that it is no longer suitable for many animals. "

The plants are different because they have to cope with adverse environmental conditions. The soils are polluted with residues from oil sands production: heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and, above all, salt. For a long time, the Canadian oil sands lay under a prehistoric ocean, the salt of which migrated into the tar layers. When the oil is washed out, the salt is also released and accumulates. However, the long-established plants cannot deal with the high salt content. Therefore they have to be replaced by salt water tolerant species. The newly created wetlands are also not very attractive for amphibians and fish, says the ecologist Lee Foote from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"They won't come back until the water is really clean. Amphibians absorb a lot of pollutants through their skin and the local fish have massive problems with their gills, which are attacked by salt and naphthenic acids."

In the newly created landscape, water will be a scarce commodity anyway. Because industry needs a lot of water, among other things to get its biggest problem under control. Rebecca Rooney:

"At the end of the day, the companies want to dump the liquid residues into abandoned mine holes and put a layer of fresh water on it to separate the toxins from the environment. This water cover has to be refilled over and over again so that these lakes don't topple over. And the water has to come from somewhere . It's a dry area, so they'll have to pour a lot of surface water into the lakes. "

The process is already being tested in a first lake. Whether it works, i.e. whether the toxins will stay at the bottom of the pit and not contaminate the entire lake, has not yet been confirmed. Nevertheless, 27 such "End Pit Lakes" are already planned. The mining companies want to model the spoil heaps and open pit holes into a landscape in which wetlands are created and forests are planted. This will be easiest where the in-situ process was carried out and the surface is hardly disturbed. Kevin Timoney of Treeline Ecological Research is skeptical that the companies will be able to close the wound they are tearing in the country.

"Definitely not in our lifetime. I think this wound will be there for centuries. And the fact that an area has been structured and planted does not mean that it is healthy."

But only a healthy ecosystem can function in the long term. Creating such a thing is a great task for people. Timoney:

"Natural landscapes are perfectly adapted to the climate and soils of their region. Everything fits together. As soon as you start taking parts out of this system and replacing them with exotic things, anything can happen. You play with the ecosystem. This is particularly advisable In times of climate change there are loads of unpredictable elements in the system, and we have no idea where this will end. "

The north of Alberta is still predominantly settled by indigenous people who hunt, fish and collect a large part of their food. They could become the big losers of the Canadian oil rush, fears David Schindler of the University of Alberta.

"The mining companies are leasing land that was contractually guaranteed to the indigenous people and turning it into large open-cast mines. In the long term, this land will no longer provide the fish and wildlife that people need for their traditional lifestyles."

There is an ever widening wound in northern Canada. Plants and animals lose their habitat, water is poisoned, soil is destroyed and people are endangered. And that won't change as long as the world cries out for oil. The mining companies wouldn't produce the oil if they couldn't sell it.