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Oil Sands Extraction: Methods, Processes and Effects

Oil Sands Extraction: Methods, Processes and Effects

Canada’s oil sands are predominantly found in the western province of Alberta.1 There are three main regions: Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River.2

Collectively, they cover over 142,000 square kilometres (km2).3 That is larger than England’s total landmass.4 The current active mining footprint is about 1,030 km2. This represents an area greater than the city of Calgary in Canada.5

Oil sands extraction

There are two types of oil sands extraction: in-situ and open pit mining. The technique used is dependent on the depth of the bitumen below the ground.6 

Both forms of extraction rely on steam produced by commercial boilers burning fuel. This creates greenhouse gas emissions. It also requires ample supplies of clean water. Most of this can be recycled following intensive treatment systems, particularly for the in situ process.7

It is nonetheless a water-intensive process. Open pit mining uses three to four barrels of freshwater to produce one barrel of bitumen.8 In situ extraction requires about 0.4 barrels of freshwater for each barrel of crude.9 Overall, the oil sands industry consumes three barrels of freshwater for every one barrel of oil produced.10

Methods of extracting oil sands

Oil sand extraction: In-situ extraction

In-situ extraction applies where bitumen is located more than 75 metres underground.11 80 per cent of oil sands reserves are accessible through in-situ mining.12

The process involves digging two horizontal wells – one higher than the other – through the oil sand deposit. Injecting steam continuously into the top well raises the temperature of the bitumen. This causes it to become more fluid. The oil then flows into the lower well, in which pumps raise it to the surface.13 

Oil sand extraction: Open pit mining

Open pit mining works for shallower deposits. Machines scoop the oil sand into trucks which transport it to crushers. Hot water is added to the crushed earth, so it can be pumped to an extraction plant. Adding more hot water to the mixture separates the bitumen for removal, dilution and further refinement.14

The impact on the environment

Both oil sand extraction approaches produce tailings fluids as a by-product.15 Tailings fluid is stored in huge tailings ponds. Those left by Alberta’s oil industry can be seen from space.16 This slurry of heavy metals and hydrocarbons is so toxic that measures are taken to prevent wildlife from going near it.17 

The ponds, located along the Athabasca River, contain enough fluid to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools.18 Both the federal government and the oil sands industry have known that tailings waste is leaking into the surrounding soil since 1973.19 High levels of contaminants have been found in beavers, ducks, fish, moose and muskrats downstream of the oil sands region.20 Consequently, it has caused a 30.7 per cent higher cancer rate amongst residents downstream.21 

Extracting and processing bitumen from oil sands also generates 2.2 times as many greenhouse gas emissions per barrel as the average crude.22 Oil sands developments account for 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and 0.15 per cent of global emissions.23 Consequently, Alberta’s fossil fuel industry is mainly responsible for Canada having the fourth-most intensive oil emissions globally.24 

This is at odds with the country’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.25 Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the driving force behind climate change.26 We urgently need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, particularly dirty fuels such as oil sands crude. This is required to avoid raising global temperatures above 1.5°C.27

Sources

  1. Unu.edu. (2009). How Things Work: Canada’s Oil Sands – Our World. [online] Available at: https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/canadas-oil-sands.
  2. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Where%20Are%20Canada [Accessed 17 Mar. 2021].
  3. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Where%20Are%20Canada [Accessed 17 Mar. 2021].
  4. Unu.edu. (2009). How Things Work: Canada’s Oil Sands – Our World. [online] Available at: https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/canadas-oil-sands.
  5. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Where%20Are%20Canada [Accessed 17 Mar. 2021].
  6. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands Extraction and Processing. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/oil-sands-extraction-and-processing/18094.
  7. Canada, N.R. (2019). New tech to reduce oil sands greenhouse gas emissions. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/simply-science/new-tech-reduce-oil-sands-greenhouse-gas-emissions/21691.
  8. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands: Water Management. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18750.
  9. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands: Water Management. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18750.
  10. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  11. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands Extraction and Processing. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/oil-sands-extraction-and-processing/18094.
  12. Oil Sands Magazine. (n.d.). Oil Sands 101: Process Overview. [online] Available at: https://www.oilsandsmagazine.com/technical/oilsands-101#:~:text=There%20are%20two%20ways%20to [Accessed 17 Mar. 2021].
  13. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands Extraction and Processing. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/oil-sands-extraction-and-processing/18094.
  14. Canada, N.R. (2016). Oil Sands Extraction and Processing. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/oil-sands-extraction-and-processing/18094.
  15. CAPP. (2019). What Are Tailings Ponds? | Environmental Impact | Alberta Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/explore/tailings-ponds/.
  16. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  17. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  18. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  19. Commission for Environmental Cooperation Alberta Tailings Ponds II. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: http://www.cec.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/17-1-ffr_en.pdf.
  20. Financial Post. (n.d.). Oil sands pollution linked to higher cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan for first time: study. [online] Available at: https://financialpost.com/news/oil-sands-pollution-linked-to-higher-cancer-rates-in-fort-chipewyan-study-finds.
  21. Features, S.L. |, Energy and December 17th 2019, P. | (2019). Downstream of oilsands, death by cancer comes too often. [online] National Observer. Available at: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/12/17/features/downstream-oilsands-death-cancer-comes-too-often.
  22. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=When%20looking%20at%20the%20carbon.
  23. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are Greenhouse Gases | GHG Emissions & Canada’s Carbon Footprint. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/explore/greenhouse-gas-emissions/#:~:text=Oil%20Sands%20GHG%20Emissions.
  24. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/.
  25. Canada, S. (2020). Net-Zero Emissions by 2050. [online] aem. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/climate-plan/net-zero-emissions-2050.html.
  26. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  27. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 oC. [online] Ipcc.ch. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/.
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