The double bind

Husky Gas Station, Downtown Edmonton, Alberta.

“This is the future site of the Total upgrader,” says Anne Brown, pointing at a map on the table. “It would be right across the river from us.” We’re sitting on the porch of her white bungalow, in a subdivision near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. “If you turn at the corner here,” she says, her finger drawing a line on the map, “you’ll go by the Shell upgrader. We know of three men that were diagnosed with blood cancers within three miles of that facility.” She looks out over her freshly mown lawn, bordered by aspen trees rustling in a wind. “We don’t know if there’s a link between the cancers and industry,” she says, “but before building more upgraders, let’s find out what’s going on.”

Tall, with curly dark hair and a soft voice, Brown, a mother of three, is a member of Citizens for Responsible Development, a group of local residents concerned about the impacts of oil, gas, and petrochemical development in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. Situated northeast of Edmonton, due south from the oil sands around Fort McMurray, the Heartland is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region. It’s a vast area: 582 square kilometres sprawling over three counties, Fort Saskatchewan (pop. 18,653), and 49 square kilometres of Edmonton. More than 40 companies, including Dow Chemical, Agrium, and Shell Canada already have projects here. Now, with growing production in the oil sands to the north, industry analysts believe investment in the Heartland may soon ramp up.

Much of the proposed new development is focused on upgraders. Only one, owned by Shell Canada, is currently operating. But more are in the works. Alberta’s Energy Resources and Conservation Board (ERCB) has given regulatory approval for five upgraders. In June 2010, a proposal by Total E&P Canada for another new $8 billion upgrader went before an ERCB hearing in Fort Saskatchewan.

The spate of approvals led to the area becoming known as “Upgrader Alley.” But others wonder if “Cancer Alley” is a more appropriate moniker. In the last decade, Brown and other members of her group attended multiple ERCB hearings into new upgraders, raising concerns about cumulative impacts to air and water quality and human health in the region. “The environmental impact assessments have shown over the years that there is an increased risk of cancer and lung disease in this area,” says Brown. She gathers up the thick pile of maps, articles and scientific documents on the porch table. The ERCB ruling into the Total upgrader is a month away. “We’re waiting to see what the board will decide,” she says. “We know there are connections between blood cancers and emissions. How high do the risks have to go before someone says that’s enough?”

“The sky’s the limit,” says Neil Shelly, Executive Director of Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association (AIHA). Before driving to Fort Saskatchewan I talk to Shelly on the phone about the Heartland’s future. “If we can get the upgrader base established,” he says, “the potential investment here is probably in excess of $60 billion.”

Roughly in the centre of the Heartland, the economy of Fort Saskatchewan was once built on farming and a jail. The rich soil on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River still grows bumper crops of potatoes and fields of wheat, while in the past the old downtown jail held prisoners from across Alberta. The year after the last man executed in Alberta was hanged here in 1960, Dow Chemical built a plant at the edge of town. Attracted by the proximity to Edmonton, the river, and CN and CP Rail, more companies moved in. The area became a petrochemical hub.

Now it’s also a nexus for pipelines going from the oil sands to the rest of North America. The AIHA, with Shelly at its head, envisions the Heartland as the site of a “chemical cluster.” Petrochemical facilities would be built in proximity. Gases like ethane—produced as a byproduct of upgrading bitumen into synthetic crude—could be transferred quickly from an upgrader into a refinery. Ethane is turned into chemicals used to make plastics and other materials. Factory could be added onto factory. “The polyester in your shirt can be made out of the oil sands,” says Shelly. “When you add in the value of other products that can be made from it, the oil could be worth $3,000 a barrel.”

In the last decade, much of the local farmland was re-zoned for heavy industry. But the dream of a chemical cluster remains a dream, subject to the highs and lows of a boom and bust energy economy. “In 2007 we had seven upgrader projects slated for the area,” says Shelly. “It was the gold rush days for the Heartland.” Then the recession hit. “All of our projects were cancelled except one,” he says. “Those were the dark days of 2009.”

In 2010 the Heartland is at a crossroads. In June, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) released a report projecting oil sands production could triple in the next fifteen years. Under its best-case scenario, CAPP predicts Alberta will produce 3.5 million barrels of bitumen per day, or 81 percent of total Canadian crude production by 2025. With several oil sands companies deciding it may be cheaper to ship bitumen to refineries over the border, two new pipelines are in the regulatory process. If approved, the TransCanada and Enbridge pipelines could send much of the new production to the U.S. and China.

Shelly thinks the majority of the bitumen should be upgraded in Alberta. “Shipping the raw product out is a huge loss of economic opportunity,” he says. In July 2010, the AIHA launched Refine It Where We Mine It, a public campaign advocating for more upgraders in Alberta. “We’re at a critical point,” says Shelly. While most of the approved upgrader projects are stalled, the Total project, if approved by the ERCB, could re-ignite investor enthusiasm. “We could turn Alberta into not just a producer of oil,” he says, “but a globally significant producer of petrochemical and high grade consumer products.”

“Preparing for hearings,” says Anne Brown, “has been a full time job for me for the last ten years.” She looks out the car window. We’re driving through Fort Saskatchewan, passing big box stores alongside Highway 21—Wal-Mart Superstore, Canadian Tire. Smokestacks rise from the Dow Chemical plant north of town. “It consumes your life,” she says.

In June, the ERCB hearing into the Total upgrader was held at the Lakeview Inn, just off the highway. If approved, the new plant would be built on 364 hectares between Dow Chemical and the Shell-Scotford refinery and upgrader. At full capacity, the upgrader will process and convert 295,000 barrels of bitumen a day from Total’s oil sands projects, including Joslyn and Surmont. In an environmental impact assessment report submitted to the three-member ERCB panel, Total claimed the project would have “no unacceptable environmental, health and socioeconomic effects.”

Brown shakes her head. We’re driving past Dow Chemical factories near the highway, a twisted matrix of steel and pipe, spewing plumes of white smoke into the air. “The people have lost trust,” says Brown. At the Total hearing, she and members of her group again brought forward concerns about inadequate air quality monitoring and the cumulative impacts of existing petrochemical facilities. “We know of chemical spills, releases, fires that have happened,” she says. If the other plants that have been approved come on line, with another new facility, Brown fears their “problems will be much larger and more people will be affected.”

Independent scientists were called to testify at the hearing. Dr. Michael Edelstein, an environmental psychologist at Ramapo College of New Jersey, examined the emergency response plan for the Total upgrader. A key component of the plan is an approach called Shelter in Place. If a chemical release occurs, residents are instructed to go inside, close all windows and doors, shut off vents and fans, seal an inside room with duct tape at the base of the door and breathe through a wet towel to filter the air.

“It’s a very limited concept,” said Edelstein, on the phone. “The regulatory process is set up to address a catastrophic event which might be lethal. But people can die from things that are cumulative. The consequences may happen over a long period of time. It falls under the radar, and citizens are essentially left to fend for themselves.”

At the hearing, Dr. Stuart Batterman, a public health expert from the University of Michigan, presented statistics compiled by Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Cancer Board. They showed Fort Saskatchewan has the highest rate of emergency room visits in Alberta, and the highest rate of hospitalizations of young children and seniors. Not only that, but compared to the rest of the province, rates of hematopoietic, or blood cancers, such as leukemia, are elevated among males in the region.

“These trends do not appear to be due to chance,” wrote Batterman in his 2010 report. Though the cause of the higher cancer rate is uncertain, he noted that benzene, styrene and naphthalene are among the carcinogens emitted from upgraders and refineries. Peer-reviewed studies from other jurisdictions, he wrote, provide “epidemiological evidence linking refinery emissions and hematopoietic cancers such as leukemia.”

“In the Heartland,” he said, “these types of cancers among males look like they’re moving beyond the statistical variation range into something that looks unusually high.” Total’s assessment, he noted, contains “omissions” and “biases” that downplay the risks to air quality and human health. “This type of facility typically has pretty high emission rates from fugitive emissions,” he said. “There are potentially tens of thousands of sources, and none of them are monitored on a regular basis. Total’s estimates of emissions from fugitives seem very low.” In the absence of a comprehensive regulatory approach to deal with cumulative impacts, he added, “I think the air quality and the health impacts will get worse.”

Industry disputes the level of risk posed by the upgrader. Ahead of the ERCB decision, Total E&P Canada president Jean-Michel Gires went on CBC Radio and said Total will minimize environmental impacts. “You don’t [minimize impacts] by random,” said Gires, noting that the company was ranked first in the oil and gas sector worldwide on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. “You do that by system, you do that by commitment, you do that by technology, you do that by training of your people, you do that by involving your contractors.”

Cumulative impacts from current and future petrochemical facilities are inevitable. Yet industry promoters like Neil Shelly say the Alberta government does have a cumulative effects management program in place, and the risks can be contained. At the same time, the long-term vision for the area will be an exclusively heavy industry zone, according to Shelly. Companies have bought out many of the farmers in the area. For those left, the AIHA started the Land Trust Society, a program funded by the capital costs of new upgrader construction. While those in the program are barred from participating in future hearings, remaining landowners are given the opportunity “to relocate outside the area and enjoy the similar type of country living that they were when this was pretty virgin country.”

As the oil sands grow, the Heartland aims to capitalize. Chemicals that may be produced here in future are used as the building blocks for cars, houses, clothing, food packaging, the plastics in cell phones, iPods and computers: a modern world built on oil. On the phone, Dr. Edelstein said it all comes with a cost, a “landscape of fear” that envelops residents living near petrochemical infrastructure. “If you are going to make people into victims in order to achieve larger objectives,” he said, “you need to face the fact that you’re doing that, and deal with it, not pretend it doesn’t happen.” The situation “is a double bind—no matter what choice we make it’s the wrong one.”

North of Dow Chemical, as smokestacks rise above spruce trees, a back road twists and turns through the boreal forest, passing fields grown thick with grass. “These were all small farms,” says Anne Brown, pointing at properties bought out by petrochemical companies. She points ahead. “This is going to be Total’s site,” she says. “You’ll see the sign on the corner.” We drive on towards an empty field.

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