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Wildfires, Water and Wildlife

By: , Posted on: May 13, 2016

wildfire fort mcmurray

After years of political controversy, Canada’s oil sands industry is going through a new crisis caused by fast spreading wildfires which started in the town of Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta. Though no production or distribution facilities are in the immediate path of the fire, more than half of the region’s oil sands capacity is presently off line, with 1 billion barrels per day of capacity out of commission.  Pipelines and transport terminals have been shut, and many facilities are running at reduced capacity. Insurance losses measured in the billions are forecast.

Syncrude Canada, (the largest player in the Alberta oil sand business) have partially shut down their Mildred Lake plant forty miles north of Fort McMurray in response to drifting smoke from the fires. There has been at least one accident on a refinery in the past as a result of the effects of smoke from distant wildfires.

Most other facilities have presently been affected only by the precautionary evacuation of most of their operational staff. Though the area has been evacuated, a skeleton crew of operators and a process engineer at the municipal water treatment plant are still keeping the plant running to keep firefighting reservoirs topped up around Fort McMurray, despite the fire burning right up to the boundary of the treatment plant. The water produced may however only be fit for firefighting, and there is a boil water notice in place for the area.

Water is also intimately linked with the production of synthetic crude oil from tar sand. The mined tar sand is slurried in aqueous solutions of caustic soda for processing, and it can take as much as 4.5 m3 water to produce each m3 of synthetic crude oil, though far lower amounts are required if water is recycled.

Statoil Canada was fined in $190,000 in 2011 for contravening its water license and providing false and misleading information regarding water withdrawals at Conklin, in northeastern Alberta.

The industry has also been responsible for a number of pollution incidents, most notably from long-term leakage from the tailings ponds used to handle aqueous effluent from processing, located close to the Athabasca River. Syncrude Canada was fined $3-million for killing 1,600 ducks on a tailings pond in 2010.

Where the tar sand is too deep to be surface mined, it can be extracted in situ using steam assisted gravity drainage, as it is at Long Lake, East of Fort McMurray. The immediate product of this process is an emulsion of bitumen in water, 5000 m3 of which escaped from a pipeline in Long Lake in July 2015. 750 barrels of synthetic crude from the process also escaped from a pipeline in June 2013 contaminating wetlands.

That there are no facilities in the path of the fires seems unlikely to be a matter of luck. It seems probable that the possibility of wildfires was taken into consideration by the designers of the plants, enabling them to be evacuated safely and bitumen processing brought to an orderly shutdown without incident.

However, environmental and water issues may not have received as much attention in designing the plants. I find this unsurprising after many years of training operators and process engineers in the oil and gas industry, who are commonly quite unknowledgeable about water issues prior to specialist training.

I often wonder how much this lack of attention is to do with the terminology used in an industry which calls all of its water handling facilities “Balance of Plant” or “Offsites”, terms which seem to me to suggest that they are more or less an afterthought to the “real” plant.

Further reading: Fort McMurray water technicians stayed behind to save vital service

Read More from Sean on SciTech Connect


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Wildfire Hazards, Risks, and Disasters provides a thorough and detailed discussion of the complex interdependencies that exist between people and the causes, consequence and implications of living with wildfire hazards.

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About the Author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

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