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.