In-situ oilsands mines may skirt environmental assessments

Source: The Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada), October 26, 2013
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The federal government has confirmed it is backing away from assessing the environmental impact of new oilsands projects, one day after acknowledging it won’t come close to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets.
A final list of the types of projects that will require a federal environmental assessment was released Friday. The list contains no mention of in-situ oilsands mines, which are expected to be the industry’s most common type of development in the future.
“This is the largest single source of (greenhouse gas) growth in the country and yet the federal government is not going to be playing a role there,” said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace.
On Thursday, Environment Canada released a report concluding that Canada is on pace to get halfway to its 2020 emissions target under the Copenhagen accord.
In-situ mines involve heating underground bitumen deposits enough to soften them so they can be pumped up. In some ways, they are considered more environment-friendly. They require no vast open pits or tailings ponds of toxic water.
Environmentalists have pointed out they still result in habitat fragmentation on the surface through seismic lines and roads to wellheads. But their biggest impact results from heating the bitumen, usually through steam. Generating that steam burns a lot of natural gas, increasing the carbon intensity of the resulting barrel of oil.
The industry’s gradual shift toward in-situ production is generally blamed for a recent rise in the average amount of carbon dioxide released per barrel of oilsands crude. About 80 per cent of the resource can only be recovered using in-situ methods.
Alberta government figures say in-situ production creates anywhere from one to 10 more kilograms of CO{-2} per barrel than open-pit mining.
Stewart said there are also unanswered questions about some in-situ techniques. He points to a Canadian Natural Resources project that has been leaking bitumen for months near Cold Lake, Alta., despite attempts to stop it.
Large expansions to existing open-pit mines will still be reviewed. As well, the federal environment minister has discretion to call a review into any project if the minister feels it is warranted. And all new oilsands projects will still be reviewed by Alberta.

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