Wildfires Rage Near Oilsands Operations, Raising Climate Questions


Forest fires covering 8,200 hectares of land in northern Alberta continue to burn out of control, spurred on by extremely dry conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures. The fires have forced the evacuation of hundreds of oilsands workers, the irony of which is not being lost on many  (just check out the reactions to this CBC article).

Climate change during the 21st century is expected to result in more frequent fires in many boreal forests, with severe environmental and economic consequences,” said a 2014 Natural Resources Canada post

About 10 per cent of Canada’s oil output — amounting to about 233,000 barrels a day — has been shut down since Monday, May 25, due to the fires. The Bank of America Merril Lynch warned in a research report that if wildfire disruptions persist, there could be a 0.1 to 0.3 per cent hit to second-quarter annualized growth.

An increase in the number of forest fires is likely to make one of the world’s most costly fossil fuel sources even more labour intensive and expensive.

The Natural Resources Canada post notes fire-prone conditions are predicted to increase as a result of climate change, potentially doubling the amount of area burned by the end of this century compared to recent decades.

Forest fires are affected by several factors including patterns of lightning, fuel moisture, temperature, precipitation and vegetation — all of which are impacted by climate change. Other climate impacts such as insect outbreaks, ice storms or high winds may also increase the amount of damaged or dead wood available to fuel the fire.

In the midst of suspended operations due to forest fires, some oilsands executives have been warning the new NDP government in Alberta that “now would be an inappropriate time to introduce a new tax on carbon.” However, Suncor chief executive Steve Williamsrecently called on the Alberta government for across-the-board carbon pricing.

“We think climate change is happening,” Williams recently said at an event in Calgary. “We think a broad-based carbon price is the right answer.”

Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, argued whether we admit it or not, we’re beginning to see the costs of climate change: “These forest fires are an example of the carbon price that we are already paying.”

The price from extreme weather fuelled by climate change — like forest fires… or drought in California — will only go up unless we get serious about transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards a 100 per cent renewable future.”

One way to start this transition is by adopting a carbon tax in the province, he argues. This would help reduce the very carbon emissions that are currently threatening to increase forest fires and their social, economic and environmental impacts.

Will the Bitumen Burn?

In the meantime, the Alberta government is forecasting another week of hot, dry weather for the region, “threatening to further elevate wildfire hazard.”

And as hundreds of oil workers are evacuated as a precautionary safety measure, questions have been raised as to what would happen in the event that the blaze came in contact with oilsand bitumen.

Bitumen is a heavy black viscous oil. Undiluted bitumen has a flash point of +151 C. This means that +151 C is “the temperature to which the fuel must be heated to in order to produce an adequate fuel/air concentration to be ignited when exposed to an open flame,” according to a report by the Alberta Innovates consortium of industry, government and university researchers.

This is a pretty high threshold compared to other fuels, such as conventional light oil which has a flash point of -9 C. This means bitumen itself is considered essentially non-flammable in many instances. (Although diluted bitumen, which is mixed with natural gas-derived condensate, is a different story and the source of major concern around accidents during rail transport.)

But forest fires are hot. According to How Stuff Works, wood’s flash point is 300 C. And an average ground forest fire with flames reaching one metre high can reach temperatures of 800 C — well above bitumen’s flash point.

So how likely is it that bitumen would actually come in contact with a forest fire? Not very, it seems.

Bitumen is typically very deep underground and mixed with clay and sand, again, making it not a very flammable substance.

Plus, forest fires are a well-known risk in the region and companies have taken precautions to avoid their billion-dollar operations going up in flames.

An example of preventative measures can be taken from Cenovus Energy, which maintains a tree- and vegetation-free perimeter around its facilities to act as a barrier from forest fires. And, inside the facilities, buildings (almost all of which are made of steel) are spaced far enough apart to avoid fire spreading easily should it make its way in.

Where’s The Fire?

Fire has come within five kilometres of Cenovus Energy‘s oilsands operations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

The company’s Athabasca natural gas Caribou South plant is now just 3 km away from the forest fire. The project remains shut down in safe mode and no impact has been reported to its infrastructure.

Cenovus’s other oilsands project being developed 150 km south of Fort McMurray at Narrows Lake is about 15 km away from the fire as of May 26, but the project hasn’t seen any production since the crash in crude oil prices at the end of last year. Meanwhile, operations at its Pelican Lake and Christina Lake oilsands projects continue to operate normally.

Also on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in the area is Canadian Natural Resources’ Kirby South oilsands facilities and pipelines. According to a May 25 company statement, these are in temporary slowdown with production being reduced from 18,000 bbl/day to about 12,000 bbl/day.

Other companies however, continue to operate. Statoil has evacuated about 110 non-essential employees at its Leismer project as a precaution, but production remains unaffected and it does not anticipate shutting-down.

Husky Energy has also reported that its operations in the Cold Lake region have not yet been affected by the fires. But operations at its natural-gas processing plant at its Muskwa natural-gas processing plant in north central Alberta have been suspended.

Image Credit: Alberta Wildfires Info

Kyla is a freelance writer and editor with work appearing in the New York Times, National Geographic, HuffPost, Mother Jones, and Outside. She is also a member of the Society for Environmental Journalists.

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