As previously noted, Dr. Patrick “Sensible Environmentalist” Moore is a big fan of the Alberta Bituminous Sands. I call them that, because as Dr. Moore points out in his book, “Tar Sands” is a misnomer, as they don’t actually contain “tar” in the technical sense of the word. If we follow his footnote reference (I kid you not, Wikipedia is the actual reference he uses), we discover that they don’t contain oil either, in the technical sense of the word, so “Oil Sands” is an equal misnomer. Therefore I will call them what they are: Bituminous Sands, or B.S. for short.
You see, “tar” is a highly viscous liquid hydrocarbon mixture originally extracted from coal, but more typically now extracted from petroleum. “Oil” is a less viscous liquid hydrocarbon mixture originally extracted from whales, and now more commonly extracted from petroleum. Since we are in a definition mood, bitumen is a naturally-occurring amalgam of numerous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, with high sulfur content and relatively high concentrations of various metals (such as chromium, lead, nickel, mercury) and some non-metals (such as arsenic and selenium), in reduced (and therefore more bioavailable and toxic) states due to the anoxic conditions in the bitumen, but maybe that is too much detail. Dr. Moore’s fandom of B.S. is no secret
, but in his book, he really lays out his best argument for B.S. development. Even in a book full of muddled thinking and logical fallacies, this argument may stand above all for it’s sheer absurdity:
“To put things in perspective, consider when a gas station spills oil or gasoline from a leaky underground tank. The site is declared “toxic real estate ” and must be cleaned up, often at the cost of millions of dollars. The oil sands [sic] in Albetra are a massive area of toxic soils, and the companies that operate in the oil sands [sic] are removing oil [sic] from the soil, on a very grand scale, making a profit selling the oil [sic] as a transportation fuel” Page 256
Now, I am no expert. I only took post-graduate courses in sedimentology from SFU and Petroleum Geology from the University of Illinois, and spend a few years working in the remediation of hydrocarbon-impacted soils and groundwater throughout BC, so by all means defer to Dr. Moore’s Ph.D in Ecology when it comes to these matters, but I contend B.S. extraction has almost exactly nothing to do with the remediation of fuels and oils spilled from underground fuel tanks.
The reason we clean up after fuel tanks spill or leak into the ground is because automobile fuels (gasoline and diesel) contain a variety of monocyclic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, along with a variety of halogenated hydrocarbon compounds. Many of these compounds are soluable in water (meaning they enter groundwater and flow towards drinking water sources or fisheries habitat) and/or volatile (meaning they evaporate at common surface temperatures, and can therefore move through the soil into basements, buildings, or confined spaces). These are generally bad things, because many of these substances are either carcinogenic or toxic to people, plants, or animals. They also cause reactions in soil and groundwater than can result in the reduction of metals found in the soil, ruining groundwater quality, or potentially increasing the toxicity of the metals in groundwater. Add to this waste oils and antifreeze, octane boosters, anti-microbial preservatives, fuel system solvents that “keep your engine running clean!”, and your average gas station has a lot of nasty things that can accumulate in the soil and groundwater.
It is important to note that the gasoline (and, to a lesser extent, diesel) you put in your car is not a natural substance that is extracted from B.S. like one might extract moonshine from a pile of sopping grain mash. Instead, the B.S. is subject to chemical washes, solvents, thermal and/or catalytic cracking and distillation. Various substances are then added to stabilize the resultant fuel, to stop it from freezing, pre-ignition, gelling, separating, or rotting when exposed to oxygen and/or water. Very few of these things would you want collecting as vapor in you basement, or entering your drinking water supply, or corroding the water or gas pipes in your front yard. Therefore, it is often a good idea to “clean up” after a leaky gasoline tank. More than a good idea, if you are in an urban area and/or the leak migrates to your neighbours property, it is the Law.
Even then, Dr. Moore might be interested to learn that, increasingly, the most logical and efficient way to deal with gas station contaminated sites is not to physically clean them up, but to use a “risk-based” approach. Here, all or some of the actual contamination is left in the ground, because the Investigator has determined that the contamination is stable, and there is no practical pathway to human or ecological harm. If (for example) the hydrocarbons are 15 metres down below relatively impermeable soils, are slow moving, and are 2 km from the nearest surface water or drinking water source, then they may not constitute a risk to anyone or anything if left in the ground to naturally decompose. Sometimes systems are installed to pump air down to the contaminants, to hasten that natural decomposition, and in pretty much every case, the person responsible for the contamination has to monitor it to make sure this “no risk” condition doesn’t change. The point is that it is safer to just leave that stuff down there than to dig it up, truck it around, and find a facility to either treat or dispose of it.
Which brings us to B.S. extraction.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the B.S. is not sitting there on the ground waiting to be scooped up. If it was, then it is unlikely that there would be much to extract, as natural processes such as rainwater dilution and organic and non-organic decomposition would have caused it all to go away over the millions of years since the bitumen migrated into the Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments in which it is trapped from the Paleozoic rocks which are it’s original source. The reason it is preserved in that younger “host rock” is that there is an overlying “cap” of impermeable sediments covering it. Except for a few small, local “seeps” where the bitumen actually comes to the surface, you either have to dig for it, or process it in the ground with heat or steam, and pump it to the surface.
Since this impermeable surface cap is generally more than 50m thick, and since there is, therefore, no reasonable pathway to human health impacts or ecological health impacts if the B.S. we’re left where it was, most competent Contaminated Sites Professionals, when presented with an Athabaskan Bituminous Sands type scenario, would recommend leaving the contaminated soils in place, a limited annual monitoring program, and perhaps minor risk-mitigation measures such as burying the “seeps” under impermeable caps, or trap-and-treat at the seeps, and restricting the extraction of impacted groundwater as a drinking water source. It would be the most responsible, cost-effective, and lowest-impact approach.
Compare this to what is happening today at the B.S. This safely-tucked-away bitumen is being either scooped up (after removing and setting aside the protective overlying cap) and then treated with solvents and/or having hot water run through it, and is being sifted and sorted in extremely energy-intensive ways. The sand is then returned to the hole, but it is not “clean”. At a contaminated site, the sand used to fill an excavation must be tested to not itself contain contamination. As the extraction methods used at the B.S. are far from perfect, there is no way the sand byproduct would meet Contmainated Sites Regulations standards.
The other wastes – mostly water, fine sediments, and residual solvents – are dumped into vast open-air settling ponds, where volatiles evaporate off, heavy metals collect on the sediments, and leakage into the surrounding ecosystem is a certainty. There is currently no long-range plan to manage these ponds.
Alternately, “in-situ” methods are used when the B.S. is too deep to economically dig out – if the protective impermeable cap keeping the B.S. from harming people and the environment is too thick to feasibly strip off. In this case, solvents, steam, hot water or even hot oil are pumped down to liquefy and volatalize the B.S., then pressure used to pump them through the ground to extraction wells. The same settling ponds for waste water and sediments are used, but this adds the bonus of mucking up the groundwater systems for large areas around the extraction zones.
You can argue B.S. extraction is better or worse than conventional oil extraction, or risky deep sea drilling, but you cannot truthfully argue that it is the same thing as cleaning up a contaminated gas station site.
I wish this terrible argument was anomaly in this book, but it isn’t. Dr. Moore’s Confession is so chock-full of bad thinking, logical fallacy, post-hoc rationalization, and straight-up bullshit, that it is hard to read without verbally responding to it while reading. My better half has asked me to stop reading it in her presence as my guffaws and invocations disturb our quiet time together. The best feature I have found about this book so far I that it is soft-covered and printed on pulpy paper, so it causes very little damage to anything more valuable than it when tossed in rage across the room.
One comment on “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – Part 5. On the topic of B.S.”
My Favorite year end blog post so far:
Dr. Moore needs a good spanking 🙂