Tracking the flows of oil sands byproducts
Crude oil extracted from the Athabasca oil sands (commonly called "tar sands") of Alberta, Canada is at the center of some of the most highly visible political debates today. For instance, the Keystone XL pipeline would provide a shortcut for oil sands syncrude and dilbit on its way to tanks and refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, oil sands-related material is already making its way into the US. Refineries in Alberta and Saskatchewan that "upgrade" the mined oil sands bitumen ship some of their byproducts to the US for treatment. What is this waste, where exactly is it coming from and going to, and how is it shipped to the US?
Where are these refineries?
These are different kinds of processors. Some of them process raw, mined bitumen. Shell Scotford, Syncrude, and Suncor all run "upgraders" to refine bitumen. Syncrude and Suncor's facilities are located in the oil sands fields, while Shell pipes diluted bitumen (or, dilbit) to its facility at Scotford, south of the oil sands fields. CCRL, in southern Saskatchewan, process some amount of oil sands as part of their operations. Note that we cannot determine that all the waste included in our analysis is a direct derivative of oil sands production. Refinery Report estimates that about 20% of CCRL's oil processing relies on oil sands. In other cases we can be pretty sure; Shell's and Suncor's facilities exclusively process oil sands (see here). Criterion Catalysts, in Medicine Hat, AL, provides catalysts for upgraders and other refiners. Other firms, like Clean Harbors and Envirosort, are waste management specialists that collect byproducts from refiners and others industries. Clean Harbors exports a lot of waste paint but we include here only the material that appears to be derivative in some way from bitumen processing.
How does this waste come into the US?
Waste derived from oil sands materials arrives in the US through just a few border crossings. Some crossings receive more shipments than others. Anecdotal evidence (a brief review of shipping manifests) suggests much of it is by rail. Visualization based on Mike Bostock's Sankey diagram.
What is this waste?
Unfortunately, the ways most waste shipments are classified don't tell us much about what the waste actually is. Click to see a breakdown of the most specific wastes each category accounts for. Most shipments fall under the UN's category of "Environmentally hazardous substances, solid, n.o.s. (not otherwise specified)." Of these shipments, most are listed by the exporter as "Hazardous waste, solid, n.o.s." To some degree, the picture is obscured by looking at the waste in terms of shipments. By weight or volume, by far vanadium-containing materials are the largest import. Vanadium is a metal leftover from the mining process. Other materials, like the ethylenes and methanes, are possibly byproducts from downstream refining processes. The fact that importers declare that they are using metals recovery techniques for most shipments (see below - "What are US facilities doing with the waste they import?") suggests that the "Hazardous waste, solid, n.o.s." is vanadium.
What are US facilities doing with the waste they import?
Because importers bring in different kinds of materials, they process it differently. Most sites seem to specialize in one management method or another.
Has the trade picked up over time?
So far, our data captures the time period from 2007, 2009-2012. Still, there is significant temporal variation. Some facilities exported waste for only one or two years. This may indicate that our dataset is incomplete, or that the waste trade is highly responsive to temporally-significant factors (e.g. price fluctuations).
The research for this page has benefitted from conversations with Hugh Deaner.