Oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada, bring with them the promise of more than 800,000 jobs and a total economic impact of $364 billion over the next two decades, according to a report released this week by the Conference Board of Canada. Other reports suggest that Albertan oil sands could have a $521 billion impact on the U.S. economy between now and 2035, including an estimated $94.7 million impact each year on the economy of Minnesota alone.
On Nov. 1, Bemidji State University will host Dr. Zvonko Burkus, a water process specialist for the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, to discuss oil sands and their impact on energy production and the environment. Burkus’ presentation will begin at 7 p.m. in Hagg-Sauer Hall 100 on the Bemidji State campus, and is open free to the public.
Burkus’ visit is sponsored by Bemidji State’s Center for Environmental, Earth and Space Studies. Prior to the public forum, Burkus will hold an informal discussion about oil sands and related technologies with environmental studies majors.
Oil sand extraction
Oil sands are the third-largest hydrocarbon reserve in the world, and the largest reserve accessible to the free market. Oil sands contain bitumen – a black, oily material that is a naturally occurring organic by-product of decomposed organic materials – which, after extraction, is purified and upgraded into synthetic crude oil. However, there has been increasing attention on the environmental impact of extracting bitumen from oil sands.
Burkus will discuss the significant and often-controversial attention that oil sands have received from different governments, energy companies and non-governmental organizations.
“The scale and type of operations [for extracting bitumen from oil sands] resulted in the development of technologies that are unique to the world,” Burkus said. “Environmental impact is large, but localized and far less than perceived outside of Alberta.”
Extraction techniques and environmental impact
Currently producing almost two million barrels of oil per day with the promise of significant future increases, bitumen is extracted from oil sands using one of two different methods – open-pit surface mining or by steam treatment. Burkus will focus his discussion on surface mining, which brings with it a much larger impact on the environment.
Oil sands are a mixture of sand, silt, clays, hydrocarbons, organic material and pore water. The process of extracting and purifying the bitumen leaves residual materials behind on the extraction site. Burkus will discuss the interactions between mining and the surrounding environment, land, water and air, and the environmental problems that come from the residual materials – which including residual hydrocarbons, heavy metals and greenhouse gases.
Burkus will also illustrate how Alberta’s reclamation regulations and practices require the mining sites to be returned to a condition equivalent to the land’s capabilities before mining, and also will cover policies and guidelines regarding water-related issues surrounding the surface mining.
For additional information
Additional information about Alberta’s oil sands is available using online resources linked below. For more information about the Nov. 1 presentation, contact Bemidji State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, (218) 755-2988.