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Emails from Canada: Sophoan Seng

Alberta is well known as a leading exporter of natural resources like timber and oil in Canada. Large foreign companies from the US have invested billions of dollars extracting oil and gas in this territory to make up for the shortage of oil for energy in their country. Oil deposits which are called “oil sands” are very distinctive from what is found in those oil rich countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and the monitoring and regulations of this lucrative industry has never been neglected.

The official website of the Alberta government describes Alberta’s oil sands as the backbone of the Canadian and the global economy, adding it is a great buried energy treasure which has continuously supplied stable and reliable energy to the world. Oil sands are a naturally composed mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, including water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely thick, sticky oil that must be treated before it can be processed by refineries to produce usable fuels such as regular gasoline and diesel. Oil sands can be found in many locations around the globe, but the Athabasca deposit in Alberta is the largest and most developed and it has utilised the most advanced technology to produce oil.

Canada’s Facts and Statistics Department has ranked Alberta’s oil sands second after Saudi Arabia in terms of proven global crude oil reserves. In 2009, the total proven oil reserves were 171.3 billion barrels, or about 13 percent of the total global oil reserves, which is about 1,354 billion barrels. The net income in the fiscal year of 2009 for the Alberta government was more than US$3 billion in royalties from oil sands projects, which was lower than 2008 at $20.7 billion. But they project it to skyrocket and revenue to hit $15 billion in the next few years. Ultimately, about 99 percent of Alberta’s oil comes from oil sands.

Responsible corporations and the government’s clear goal and commitment have transformed Alberta oil sands into a blessing, not a curse. All approvals, licences, dispositions, permits and registrations relating to oil sands are required by Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), Alberta Environment and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development bodies. This enables the comprehensive task of handling oil sands investments.

However, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, University of Alberta scientist David Schindler told the public that the high levels of toxic pollutants in the Athabasca River were caused by oil sand mining. Schindler and his team of researchers found that oil sands development projects were contaminating the Athabasca River watershed area. The scientists found that seven “significant pollutants” were at levels that exceeded government guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. This new finding contradicted the government’s previous argument, which had always claimed that the naturally occurring bitumen had low levels of pollution.

After publishing in 2009 the first peer-reviewed paper from Schindler and his team, an ongoing political debate started, the story grabbed the public’s attention and a group of experts was given the job of finding the best solution for this rich oil sands industry. From public and private debates to ones in parliament and political institutions, a solution must be found to ensure the sustainable development of this non-renewable natural resource.



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