Canada prides itself on its immense crude oil resources that are the third largest in the world1, but its mining is causing grave environmental consequences. Most of these resources are found in the south-west Canadian province of Alberta. More specifically, the Athabasca area in north-east Alberta holds nearly two-thirds of the total Canadian oil area1. The specificity of Athabasca and what makes it different from Middle Eastern crude oil is that its reserves consist of oil sands, also called tar sands. Canadian oil sands account for 97% of the proven oil reserves of the country2.
What are oil sands?
Oil sands are an unconventional source of oil, as opposed to conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs where impermeable geological formations trap liquid oil and sometimes natural gas. Oil sands are different in that they were once oil-trapping formations but have since lost volatile components and dried out3, forming a heavier and thicker “bitumen”4.
There are two extraction methods for oil sands: surface mining for the shallowest sands, and “in-situ production” for the deepest. In the latter, heating very viscous bitumen allows it to flow and to be pumped to wells by reducing its viscosity1. Surface mining is easier to operate, but in Athabasca, the oil sands lying near the surface represent only 20% of the total estimated oil volume. They are located on a small 3% of the Athabasca oil sands area1. That portion of land is located on the riverbank of the Athabasca River.
The importance of Canada’s oil sands
The oil sands industry in Alberta is a vital part of the Canadian economy. Oil companies such as Syncrude, Shell Canada or Suncor Energy are ensuring progress in the mining technology to boost the profitability of their oil production. They produced 1 million barrels of oil per day in 2005, and in 2015 this number had increased to 2.4 million barrels2. The Canadian government is planning to expand these oil sands operations even further5—despite opposition from environmentalists. It is already a leading source of oil for the United States4.
A growing industry
This progress in the oil sands production translates into the expansion of the Athabasca mining site by the river. NASA took satellite photos of the area from 1984 to 2016, that show an increasingly deforested area of thousands of square kilometres in the Canadian boreal forest4. We can also notice growing tailings ponds in these pictures—areas where wastewater and waste sand from the mining process are stored. The growth is visible especially after 2000, when the oil prices increased and the industry became more profitable4.
The deforestation of the forest and the presence of several square kilometres of wastage areas are a first insight of the environmental problem that the oil sands industry represents. In fact, this method of oil production is considered as extremely unsustainable by many3.
The mining process of sands is extremely inefficient in terms of energy usage. It is also resource intensive – for every barrel of oil produced, two tons of mined sand is needed.3. Moreover, tailings waste ponds are so toxic that it is dangerous for birds to come near them. There have been incidents in the past where ducks have indeed been killed by it, covered in tar and unable to escape. Namely, in spring of 2008 Syncrude caused the death of 1,600 ducks that landed in one of its ponds in its Mildred Lake facility, and was fined $3 million6.
A 2014 federal study also found that toxic chemicals from oil sands facilities were leaching into the groundwater7. Models have estimated the leakage to be of millions of litres for a single tailings pond. The Athabasca River has a risk of being polluted as well. In 1970, a pipeline owned by Great Canadian Oil Sands (now called Suncor) broke and spilt what was estimated as up to 50,000 barrels of oil into the river8.
Despite the numbers that oil sands operators like Syncrude provide to the public, their carbon footprint during the mining process is also far from being sustainable. Syncrude claims that for one barrel of oil produced, 110 kg of greenhouse gases are emitted9. However, a 2019 independent research body found that this is largely an understatement and that the actual emissions of GHGs and carbon dioxide could be more than twice the official number10.
The Oil-Climate Index conducted another study in 2015 on the carbon footprint of oil production sites around the world. They measured that the greenhouse gas emissions of the oil sands companies in Athabasca are the largest overall—they may emit more than 730 kg of GHG per oil barrel11. Comparatively, the OCI found that the sites in Saudi Arabia emit approximately 500 kg of GHG. The emissions released from oil sands mining contribute heavily to climate change.
There have been attempts to resolve the problem linked to Canadian oil sands. In 2012, the European Commission tried to change its law on oil imports to ban oil sands from Europe12. However, after heavy lobbying from Canada and trade war threats13, the Commission gave up and Canada managed to continue selling its dirty oil to the EU.
Moreover, even as Canada agreed to the 2015 Paris Agreement and to keep global warming under 1.5ºC, in 2018 the Canadian Prime Minister bought a new pipeline project to ensure Athabasca would expand its market to the Pacific8.
Immediately halting oil sands production may not be the solution as a significant number of communities (including indigenous communities of Athabasca) rely on the industry for jobs and services. What these communities need is a smooth transition to clean energy industries from oil sands8.
1 Oil Sands Facts and Stats. Alberta Government.
2 Energy Fact Book 2016-2017. Natural Resources Canada. 2017; 30.
3 Grotzinger JP, Jordan TH. The Human’s Impact on the Environment. In: Understanding Earth. 7th Edition. New York, USA. 2014: 655.
4 World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. NASA Earth Observatory.
5 Leahy S. This is the world’s most destructive oil operation–and it’s growing. National Geographic. 2019 April 29.
6 Weber B. Syncrude guilty in death of 1,600 ducks in toxic tailings pond. The Sun. 2010 Jun 25.
7 Weber B. Federal study says oil sands toxins are leaching into groundwater, Athabasca River. The Globe and Mail. 2014 Feb 20.
8 Lake Athabasca oil slick broken by wind. The Leader Post. 1970 Jun 17.
9 Syncrude Sustainability Report 2017-2018. 2018; 6.
10 Liggio J, Li SM. Measured Canadian oil sands CO2 emissions are higher than estimates made using internationally recommended methods. 2019 April 23.
11 Total Emissions. Oil-Climate Index. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
12 Lewis B. How Canada blocked Europe’s dirty oil label. The Globe and Mail. 2014 Oct 26.
13 Carrington D. Canada threatens trade war with EU over tar sands. The Guardian. 2012 Feb 20.