Environmental Forensics and the Alberta Oil Sands

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The oil sands of Alberta are receiving a lot of interest internationally for the potential environmental impacts due to mining and SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) extraction of this resource as well as for the debate around the Keystone XL pipeline. Even Robert Redford is latest to give his view (again, it was recycled) in. He may have a few facts wrong about the oil sands but that never stopped anyone in Hollywood from an opinion. This blog is not meant to address this debate, as it would likely require a very long essay to speak to both sides of the argument adequately.

One marker chemical class for oil sands monitoring is a group of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are naturally present in the crude oil itself (known as petrogenic PAHs) as well as formed during any combustion process (pyrogenic PAHs). To make things a bit confusing, many of the PAHs can be formed in both pyrogenic and petrogenic sources. The use of indicative PAHs can be used to distinguish between these potential sources.

Whether you agree or disagree with oil sands development, one fact that is true: the impact of oil sands mining, as measured by PAHs in the environment, has been conclusively demonstrated only very recently. Two publications in 2013 showed this. There were published by Kurek et al and Jautzy et al. Both of these papers exemplify the principal of environmental forensics: to elucidate the source and timing of a contaminant release.

To read more about how this is related to environmental forensics and a new book on the topic, visit this link to my guest blog at @ELSenviron.

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About the Author

Court Sandau

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Court is the President and owner of Chemistry Matters – a niche environmental consulting firm which specializes in geoforensics, environmental forensics, biomonitoring, and arson investigations. As an international speaker and expert chemist, Court is often called upon to provide his expert services in oil & gas investigations and litigious chemistry issues.

Dr. Court Sandau is the principal of Chemistry Matters and an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary in the Schulich School of Engineering. Dr Sandau provides expert support to projects involving litigious or contentious subjects including developing of a sampling plan, determining the appropriate data quality objectives, sampling and documentation to meet legal standards, analyzing and interpreting data and explaining the results in judiciary proceedings or public forums. He specializes in Analytical data quality, Data validation, Human bio-monitoring, Environmental forensics and Risk Assessment with the goal of improving data quality and the understanding of analytical measurements in the environmental industry.