Contamination of a major western Canadian river basin from oilsands operations is a "high-profile concern" for downstream communities and wildlife, says a newly-released "secret" presentation prepared last spring by Environment Canada that highlighted numerous warnings about the industry's growing footprint on land, air, water and the climate.
The warnings from the department contrast with recent claims made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Peter Kent that the industry is being unfairly targeted by environmentalists who exaggerate its impacts on nature and people.
The presentation noted figures from the Canadian Energy Research Institute, a collaboration among industry, government and academics, that estimate the oilsands sector is responsible for more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in Canada, and will contribute more than $1.7 trillion to the country's economy over the next 25 years.
But it warned that Alberta and other parts of Western Canada are facing a steep economic and ecological price tag for failing to crack down on the industry's collateral damage.
"Contamination of the Athabasca River is a high-profile concern," said the presentation, marked secret, but released to Postmedia News through access to information legislation.
"Recent studies suggest elevated levels of pollutants near mining sites including hydrocarbons and heavy metals . . . (It) raises questions about possible effects on health of wildlife and downstream communities."
The presentation was produced in May as a governmentwide oilsands task force continued to develop a new science-based monitoring program to get specifics on the impacts of oil extraction from the bitumen deposits in Western Canada that are also known as tarsands because of their tar-like appearance and odour. The deposits are considered to hold one of the largest reserves of oil in the world, but existing technology forces producers to use large quantities of water and energy, while disrupting natural ecosystems to extract the fuel from the ground.
"Bitumen extraction uses between one (in situ) and three to four (mining) barrels of fresh (i.e. Not recycled) water per barrel of oil recovered," said the document. "Industry demand for water is expected to increase."
A related Environment Canada document, also produced in May and released earlier this month to Postmedia News, warned the government that the industry's economic future was in jeopardy because of a lack of "credible scientific information" required to counter campaigns and foreign regulations or legislation that crack down on products and industries with poor environmental performance.
In recent years, Harper's government has repeatedly pledged to deliver new regulations for the sector, but has subsequently delayed those plans.
The latest document singles out the oilsands sector as the main obstacle in Canada's efforts to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere and cause climate change.
"The oilsands are Canada's fastest growing source of GHGs," said the document.
It estimated that the industry's annual greenhouse gas emissions would rise by nearly 900 per cent from 1990 to 2020. By the end of that period, the oilsands — with an estimated annual footprint of 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent gases in 2020 — would exceed the carbon footprint of all cars and SUVs on Canadian roads from 2008, according to the Environment Canada document.
The document also warns of other rising air pollutants that could cause acid rain or other forms of acidification to damage lakes in Saskatchewan and Alberta, along with particulate matter that could be toxic to rivers, the landscape and wildlife.
"Oilsands development will continue to put pressure on vulnerable species (e.g. Woodland Caribou)," said the document. "Removal of landscape features for mining reduces available habitat."
It also said that changes to existing habitat prompted by industrial activity would also threaten forest species, as well as water-dwelling species that are already seeing major changes to their own habitat.
"Low flow conditions could damage fish habitat, especially during winter," said the document. "River flow has decreased over (the) past thirty years (and the) trend is expected to continue."
Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network, a coalition of environmental, faith-based and labour groups, said the warnings from Environment Canada suggest that Harper and Kent should stop trying to defend the environmental record of the oil and gas industry, making claims that the oilsands represent a "responsibly and sustainably developed resource."
"It's clear that there's nothing ethical about this level of environmental destruction and greenhouse gas pollution," said Saul. "The government seems to know the level of destruction associated with the tarsands and yet they're presenting a very different face to the public and in reality, there seems to be a massive gap between what they know to be an extremely destructive project and a policy agenda that is essentially seeking to promote the rapid expansion of the tarsands."
Environment Canada has been working on improving its monitoring programs on impacts of development on land, air and water as part of a process launched by former minister Jim Prentice, in collaboration with Alberta.
Kent unveiled details of the plan in July, suggesting at the time that industry should be able to pick up the estimated $50 million annual costs since they were expected to generate $80 billion in the next year.
Janet Annesley, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry lobby group, said she didn't see any "new" information in the statements from the Environment Canada document, but noted that the industry "generally agrees" with a report released last year by the Royal Society of Canada that also concluded there was a need for further monitoring, research and review of impacts.