THE OPTIONS TO MINE FOR OIL IN CANADIAN TAR SANDS WHILE REMAINING ENVIRONMENTALLY ETHICAL IN THE ENGINEERING FIELD

pointdepressedMechanics

Feb 22, 2014 (3 years and 4 months ago)

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Bursic 2:00

L04

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering

2013
-
10
-
01

THE OPTIONS TO MINE FOR OIL IN CANADIAN TAR SANDS WHILE
REMAINI
NG ENVIRONMENTALLY ETHICAL IN THE ENGINEERING
FIELD


Austin Grill (
adg73@pitt.edu
)



INTRODUCTION:
THE ETHICAL
SCENARIO OF BEGINNING WORK ON A
NEW LANDMASS OF TAR SANDS


In this scenario I am working for Shell Canada, an oil
company which is currently operating a mine in the
Muskeg River and the Scotford Upgrader at Fort
Saskatchewan in Alberta, Canada. Shell is looking to
expand its business to a mine in Jackpine.
I am
an
engineer hired by the company to determine the best
method of extracting the bitumen from the tar sands.
Shell wants an economical option that will be cheap so
that the enterprise can be as profitable
as possible by
reducing costs.

As the engineer for
this particular project it is my job
to analyze the options there are to proceed an
d report back
to the company with my decision. Methods of tar sand
removal that have been practiced include open pit mining
and in
-
situ extraction.
Open pit mining is simi
lar to
quarrying in that excavation occurs at the surface. This
form of mining the bitumen, the oil, can be controversial
because it accounts for 370 million cubic meters of water
every year that is used to clean the mixture and separate
the purified oil.

That equates to
5 liters of water for every
liter of oil, and 780 liters of water for every barrel of oil.

The tailings ponds result from this process contain
many contaminant parti
cles, including potentially harmful
heavy metals, particulates, and linge
ring hydrocarbons.
By current methods, all of the water used to purify the
bitumen goes into these tailings ponds.

In
-
situ mining
is used to extract oil which is too deep
in the ground to excavate.
Also referred to as the solvent
extraction method,
in
-
situ mining utilizes the viscosity of
the bitumen hydrocarbon by injecting a solvent into the
mixture. The oil along with the solvent the drains into a
well where the two can easily be separated. This method
requires much less water than the open pit
mining method
and thus does not leave as large a mass of tailings ponds

(1)
.

To make an ethical decision on the issue I have
consulted multiple engineering codes of ethics, including
that of the National Society of Professional Engineers
(NSPE) and the Ame
rican Institute of Chemical
Engineers (AICE).
For my Shell assignment the portions
of the Code of Ethics for Engineers from the NSPE which
will be relevant are II.1, where it is stated that “engineers
shall hold paramount the … health … of the public
,



s
e
ction II.2 which refers to engineers remaining within
their discipline, section II.3.c which details the unethical
nature of speaking with bias particularly regarding
a
situation as this where the engineer is being paid, and
section III.2.d which encourag
es “sustainable
development in order to protect the environ
ment for
future generations,” (2
).

The code from the AICE
includes a statement concerning the protection of the
environment which also must b
e considered in this
decision (3
).

I will also look at
environmental ethics

and
specifically how engineering re
lates to environmental
ethics (4
). One ecologist highlights the lack of knowledge
on the effects of tar sands, and begins to look at the
effects of the tar sands on communities dow
nstr
eam from

the tailings ponds (5
).

It is important for me to see how the public views the
situation as well from a perspective where the speaker
does not profit from the mining, so I will include an
article from a nearby citizen. The issues that surround tar
sands
and fossil fuels are not solely in how the oil is
mined but what the overall effects are, so I will analyze
the
ethics of tailings ponds on the nearby areas as well as
the large quantities of carbon dioxide released into the
atmosphere by the process.

I wi
ll use these along with other sources to come to a
decision regarding the ethical mining solution for Shell
Canada.


OPEN PIT MINING VS. SOLVENT
EXTRACTION METHOD: IS EITHER
ONE ETHICAL?


The tailings ponds left from open pit mining are
essentially the was
te dumps of the process of harvesting
the oil. The harmful pollutants from the tailings ponds
pose many problems, as these dumping grounds are in
fact ponds filled with biologically harmful material. This
poses threats to wildlife mistaking the tailings
ponds for
safe drinking water. An even greater health risk is present
for humans as the contaminated water leaks into the rivers
and surrounding land and seeps through
the soil into the
groundwater [6
].

Ecologist David Schindler comments on this
occurrenc
e, opining that the industrial pollution from the
tar sands is causing the slightly higher rates of cancer in
Austin Grill

2


the communities downstream from the tar sands. It has
been shown that fish eggs laid on sediment soiled with oil
typically die, and survivors are

left with major
abnormalities. This type of harm is the situation fish are
in which are in the tar sands or the tailings ponds. The
tailings ponds do not effectively sustain life, and kill
animals every year, pointing to the logical conclusion that
any
of what is in these liquid dumping grounds seeping
into the local river and water system would be detrimental
to human life in the region

(
5
)
. The polluted water
directly affects the public because they rely on that water
to survive, but also because they

often eat fish from the
river, whi
ch are likely also contaminated.

The
consumption of the fish can be deadly

depending on how
much biomagnification there is in the river from the
different animals increasing their concentration of
pollutants as the food
chain
goes higher. The fish from
the river is the main source of protein for those living near
by the water. It is too early to know for sure but health
risks may be a part of the future of these towns (
7
).

This entire result violates many engineering
codes of
ethics. It disregards public health, which is directive II.1
in the NSPE Code of Ethics (
2
). It also strictly goes
against the AICE Code of Ethics, which states, “members
shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the
public and pro
tect the environment in performance of
their professional duties,”

(
3
). The tailings ponds and
their pollution into the river system violate both
requirements of this cannon. The tailings ponds endanger
the public and disrupt the entire ecosystem around
them,
making them harmful to the environment as well.

The second option, the solvent extraction method,
uses much less water than the open pit mining method and
thus results in fewer tailings ponds
, nowhere near the 66
square miles of tailings ponds in nor
thern Alberta, Canada
required for the open pit mining
(
8
).

In the solvent
extraction the oil drains into a well and is easily separated
from the solvent.
This method, though utilized for
bitumen oil buried deep in the ground, can function closer
to the
surface as well. Currently no companies perform
the solvent extraction method closer to the surface
because it is more expensive, but it is more ethical to
spend the extra money and protect the environment and
nearby communities.

I will further justify th
is statement with a quote from
Sarah Bell, author of “Engineers, Society, and
Sustainability.” “Engineering is a modern profession that
has been implicated in vast ecological destruction and is
central to implementing ecological modernization
policies. …
Engineers should be aware of and
accountable for their role in modernization, ecological
destruction, a
nd structures of domination,” (4
). In other
words, it is my duty as the engineer to develop the best
plan of action while causing the least disruption t
o the
surrounding environment. In the context of the tar sands,
I need to structure the process of extraction which will
have the least effect on the ecosystem of the area.
Engineers, while they are to be ethical at all times,
sometimes make poor decisio
ns, and this is when
accountability needs to be taken, as is consistent with the
Codes of Ethics put out

by both the NSPE and the AICE.

Thus far in the Canadian tar sands engineers have not
been very ethical, and they have not been forced to be
either. Ac
cording to a study by Peter Lee of
Global
Forest Watch Canada

and Kevin Timoney of
Treeline
Ecological Research
, “enforcement action … was taken
in less than one per cent of the more than 4,000 cases
where a tar sands facility violated an operating
conditi
on,” (
8
). The plants and the authorities themselves
are unethical, making it that much more important that I
as the engineer maintain my integrity and hold firm on my
dec
isions and my course of action.

As there always is with oil and the topic of fossil
fuels, carbon dioxide levels and emissions are eyed
closely for each fuel and every process. Citizens in
Canada are concerned that the expansion of the mining
will cause greater CO
2

emissions. These emissions are
estimated to total nearly two and a half
megatons of

carbon dioxide every year (
9
). With these forms of
mining
,

carbon dioxide is released prior to the use of the
fuel as well as during combustion.
This is a result of how
much dirtier oil is in the tar sands as compared to other oil
mines.


SOL
UTIONS TO THE REMAINING
ISSUES: CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS
AND THE MOST ETHICAL MANNER OF
MINING


By capturing the CO
2

produced throughout the process
of mining and cleaning,
Shell can reduce their emissions
as well as integrate the company with alternate fo
rms of
energy. Professor Andrew Bocarsly of Princeton
University has been working on using the gas as a fuel
since 2009. By mimicking Professor Bocarsly’s process
of producing methanol (a molecule which can be used as
a fuel) form the carbon dioxide Shel
l will contribute to
aiding the global effort for lower greenhouse gas
emiss
ions (10
).

Once the oil is mined, it still must be cleaned and
purified. Tar sands contain little oil for how much
excavation and land destruction occurs in the process.


Conten
ts of Tar Sands

Bitumen

Water

Mineral Solids

9%
-

13%

3%
-
7%

80%
-
85%


Only about one in every ten particles is bitumen.
There is some water in the sands as well, but mostly it
consists of mineral solids

(11)
. This is the reason millions
of cubic meters of water are used each year to clean the
Austin Grill

3


bitumen. All of the other particles contained in the tar
sands are what are present in the water when the oil is
extracted.
Because of all these extra particles the w
ater is
much polluted, causing the health problems for water life
and people living downstream.

I have come up with an ethical solution to the unclean
water. Rather than attempt to isolate the water in tailings
ponds,
Shell should use a centrifuge to sepa
rate the
particles in the mixture.

This method of cleaning the
water would be more expensive, due to additional
infrastructure and maintenance costs, than the currently
used methods of cleaning the water, but the water would
be cleaner and the purification would occur more quickly.
If Sh
ell invests on the infrastructure the centrifuges could
be used for the oil mined in either manner: open pit
mining or the solvent extraction method.

The centrifuge is useful because it separates
components of mixtures. The functionality of a
centrifuge c
omes from spinning it around at high speeds,
adding force to the particles and causing them to separate
more quickly than if they settled due to gravity. More
dense molecules will move to the bottom, and less dense
molecules will move to the top due to th
e sedimentation
principle. The components of a mixture experience one G
of force due to the gravitational pull, but in a centrifuge
will experience a force much larger. The bitumen would
come to the top and could be removed separately from the
rest of th
e mixture. The water would be next, and there
would still be particulate matter suspended in the water,
but there would be less of it than before.

The centrifuge not only abides by all of the ethics in
each Code of Ethics I have read, but it also brings t
he
entire production of the oil from bitumen sands into an
ethical light. It significantly reduces if not eliminates any
health risk to the public. The harmful contaminant
particles like the heavy metals would be removed from
the water and the water woul
d be safer. Removing the
pollutants from the environment also aids the ecosystem
and protects the area for future generations, as is
encouraged in the NSPE Code of Ethics (2).

The remaining water could still go to tailings ponds if
it is still not clean e
nough. The final portion of the
mixture would contain a sludge
-
like combination of
heavy metals and particulate matter, but 70%
-
85% of this
sludge is water. This sludge could be treated by adding
calcium sulfate (CaSO
4
), commonly referred to a gypsum,
an
d sand. The reaction that follows produces a solid
sediment that can be used in the process of land
reclamation from the environmental damage done by
mining. The other result of the reaction if pure water as it
is essentially squeezed out of the mixture
as the reaction
occurs. This water could be reintroduced into the
environment, used for public consumption, or reused in
the next round of bitumen sand extractions. In this way
the process also gives back to the environment in a way
adding more security
in keeping with an ethical agenda.


CONCLUSION
: MINIMIZE THE OPEN
PIT MINES AND TAILINGS PONDS


My ethical analysis is that tailings ponds cause too
many environmental concerns to be permitted, especially
when there are other potential options for the proc
ess of
extracting oil. The solvent extraction method is much
cleaner than the open pit mining method. I recommend
the solvent extraction method over open pit mining with
tailings ponds. If water is purified using the centrifuge
and the calcium sulfate,
open pit mining is acceptable. In
either case the carbon dioxide gas should be collected to
convert to fuel as afore mentioned.

Shell should economically analyze the cost of my two
recommended options and choose which would be best
for them. The ideal op
tion is to mine solely with the
solvent extraction method. The second option is to mine
what is necessary with the solvent extraction method, but
excavate the sands closer to the surface with the open pit
mining method, then using a centrifuge and gypsum
to
clean the water and potentially reuse it.


REFERENCES


[1] O. Gerald. (2011, September). “Solvent Extraction
Method Shows Promise for Recovering Bitumen from Tar
Sands.”
Chemical Engineering
. (Online article).
http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA3145760
03&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w

[2
] (2013). “NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.”
National Societ
y of Professional Engineers
. (Online
Article).
http://www.nspe.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics/index.html

[3
] (2013). “Code of Ethics.”
The Global Home of
Chemical Engineers
. (Online Article).
http://www.aiche.org/about/code
-
ethics

[4
] S. Bell. (2011, September 9). “Engineers, Society, and
Sustainability.”
Morgan and Claypool Publishers
.
http://site.ebrary.com/lib/pitt/docDetail.action?docID=105
35245


[5
] D. Schindler. (2010, November 25). “Tar Sands Need
Solid Science.”
Comment
. (Online Article).
http://search.proquest.com/docview/815998008/fulltextP
DF?accountid=14709

[6
] T. Gray. (2013, September 27). “The Tar Sands Don’t
Have to Pollute the Water. So Why do they?”
The Globe
and Mail
. (Online article).
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the
-
tar
-
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4


sands
-
dont
-
have
-
to
-
pollute
-
the
-
water
-
so
-
why
-
do
-
they/article
14564780/?service=print

[7
] S. Bocking. (2012). “Schindler’s Pissed.”
Alternatives
.
(Online article).
http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA302664
0
73&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w

[8
] E. Struzik. (2013, August 5). “With Tar Sands
Development, Growing Concern on Water Use.”
Environment360
. (Online Article).
http://e360.yale.edu/feature/with_tar_sands_development
_growing_concern_on_water_use/2672/

[9
]
C. Linnit. (2012, October 2). “First Nation
Challengers Shell Canada’s Jackpine Mine Expansion,
Citing Constitutional Treaty Rights.”
DeSmogBl
og.com
.
(Online Article).
http://www.desmogblog.com/2012/10/01/first
-
nation
-
challenge
-
shell
-
canada
-
s
-
jack
pine
-
mine
-
expansion
-
citing
-
constitutional
-
treaty
-
rights

[10] C. Zandonella. (2012, June14). “Startup Born in
Princeton Lab turns Carbon Dioxide into Fuels.”
Princeton University
. (Online Article).
http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S33/95/96G
16/index.xml?section=featured

[11] M. Gray, Z. Xu, and J. Masliyah. (2010, March).
“Physics in the Oil Sands of Alberta.”
Physics Today
.
(Online Article).
http://www.fmf.uni
-
lj.si/~podgornik/download/PhysicsTodayMarch2009.pdf



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


I would like to thank Ms. Nicole Faina for
her help in
directing me on this assignment and for helping me
understand necessary details.