V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Oil and water don't mix

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in The Toronto Sun and Sun Media, July, 2008.

Part 3 in a 5-day series

It has been called God's canvas.

A freeze-frame of what the world looked like 10,000 years ago, when millions of buffalo grazed freely on these grasslands.

It's a tract of virgin land, unsullied by human activity. The slopes in this part of the emerald country roll upon themselves like sea waves, while watercolour mountains are painted on the distant horizon.

"This is a piece of antiquity we're standing on," said Francis Gardner, a third-generation cattle rancher, atop a ridge with an unfettered view of the area.

"Today it's a functioning, ancient ecosystem that's very much intact and self-surviving. It's good for water, protein production for cattle and livestock, good forviewscapes, vistas and recreation. It's a long-term natural advantage to Alberta."

And it's here where Petro-Canada wants to build an underground pipeline.

Gardner is part of a growing coalition of cattle ranchers who are taking on big oiland gas in attempts to safeguard a national heritage, rough fescue grasslands,that protects another kind of national Canadian heritage: Water. Rough fescuegrass carpets the foothills of southern Alberta -- the province boasts the largest,undisturbed tract of it in North America.

It's a strong, wiry grass which producesa thick layer of litter, or dead grass, which holds and stores moisture better thanother grasses. The litter captures rainwater, which percolates through the deadgrasses, soaks into the soil and is drawn into the aquifers.

The roots of the roughfescue can reach down as far as three metres, giving it access to water andmaking it a drought-resistant, hardy plant -- an important asset with climatechange looming. Once uprooted, it can't be restored.

Petro-Canada, meanwhile, has plans to build a sour gas pipeline through the areathat would connect a series of wells. Spokesman Kyle Happy, however, stressedthey've been working with local stakeholders to minimize environmental impacts.

They altered original plans, for example, and moved the pipeline away from thegrasslands so that only 6% would pass through the area, he adds."We definitely recognize this is an environmentally sensitive area," he said. "Atthe end of the day, Petro-Canada is committed to developing this pipeline in asustainable manner."

A hearing with Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board is scheduled for August.

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What's happening in the foothills of Alberta is symptomatic of a larger scenarioplaying out in the energy-rich capital of Canada: Alberta is oil rich, but becoming increasingly water poor.

To produce one barrel of oil from the oilsands, requires between two and 4.5barrels of water.

Duelling demands are beginning to emerge, and it appears water is losing, and fast.

A report released last month from the Pembina Institute says that plans to build nine industrial plants east of Edmonton will consume 10 times as much freshwater as the entire city itself.

In their 2006 report, Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends, the Pembina Institute warns, "In some parts of the province, Alberta will soon have to decide which is more important: Water or oil."

Canada's international water expert, David Schindler, has also been sounding alarm bells at the frenetic pace of oilsands development. About a million barrels of oil are produced daily from Alberta's oilsands. The amount of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River to produce this kind of volume is enough to sustain a city of two million people a year, Schindler says.

By 2015, production is expected to triple to three million barrels.

For years water advocates have likened the value of water as the next century's oil given its growing scarcity around the world.

Just as underground pipelines snake around the world carrying oil and gas, a network of pipelines is being built to move water, points out Maude Barlow in her book Blue Covenant.

Libya's Great Man-Made River Project is a $35 billion US, 5,000-km undergroundpipeline --- the biggest in the world -- and extracts millions of cubic litres a day from the aquifers under the Sahara Desert. But Chad, Egypt and Sudan also sit above the same aquifer.

Meanwhile, most of the water used in the oilsands process is so contaminated it can't be returned to the watersheds. Instead, the contaminated water is stored intailing ponds the size of lakes. Alberta has about a dozen such ponds, covering about 50 sq/km. The Pembina Institute projects that tailing ponds will grow to 220 sq/km by 2040.

In April, Canada made international headlines when 500 ducks died after landing in a pond of toxic oily sludge at a Syncrude Canada site, north of Fort McMurray.

"I challenge (energy companies) to justify why putting that development here is more important than preserving these rare grasslands," said biologist and fescue expert Cheryl Bradley.

The deep roots of the rough fescue are said to be able to capture more carbon than forests.

Added Adele Hurley, director of the Program on Water Issues at the University of Toronto, "This is stuff you'll be trying to grow in 20 years."

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