If you visit the area around the Athabasca River in Western Canada, you will find two contrasting landscapes. Alberta is not only the home of the Canadian Rockies, but also Canada’s oil sands mining.
While these large reserves have been around for a significant amount of time, for a long time, oil production in Alberta was simply not worthwhile. This is due to that oil is bound to the sand as so-called bitumen – hydrocarbons that come from dead plants, amongst other things.¹
Alberta’s oil sands are a sticky, black mixture of 85 per cent sand, five per cent water and ten per cent liquid bitumen. Extracting usable oil from this mixture is a complex and expensive process. It is technological innovations, the dwindling oil reserves and the resulting increase in oil prices which make oil sands mining a lucrative business.²
Sand becomes oil
The common method of extracting oil from the oil sands is reminiscent of the local lignite mining industry. After the forest has been cleared, excavators first remove the forest floor and then dig up the oil sands.
Gigantic lorries transport the sand for further processing – it must be free of stones and crushed. Water and solvents help to separate the bitumen from the sand, which serves to refine the crude oil and can then be processed into petrol, for example.
If the oil sand is too deep in the ground for open-cast mining, another method is used – the in-situ production, where two parallel shafts are drilled into the ground. Under high pressure, steam is forced through one shaft, which dissolves the bitumen and pumps it upwards through the other shaft. While this does not require any forest clearing, this process consumes even more energy and releases more carbon dioxide.³
Consequences for the environment and humans
Oil sands mining requires two tonnes of oil sands to produce a barrel of oil. In 2017, Alberta was producing 2.8 million barrels of oil a day from oil sands. If the oil producers have their way, it could well be at least three to five million barrels a day.⁴
It is clear that oil sands mining in Canada, which is the “largest industrial project on the planet” according to Greenpeace, cannot remain without huge consequences for the environment. Huge areas of coniferous forest have become desolate moonscapes with poison ponds and sulphur mountains.
To wash one litre of bitumen out of the sand, it requires five litres of water – water which is then silt-contaminated with heavy metals and sometimes carcinogenic hydrocarbons and stored in clarification ponds. An estimated 11 million litres of the toxic wastewater seeps into the groundwater and surrounding rivers every day. These figures come from the Canadian “Pembina Institute”, which deals with energy and environmental issues.⁵
Other studies have also found high concentrations of mercury, arsenic and carcinogenic hydrocarbons in the water and fish of the Athabasca River, which flows past the mining areas and clarification basins. In the village of Fort Chipewyan, just over 200 kilometres downstream, there has been a conspicuous increase in cancer cases.
Moreover, the conversion of sand into crude oil swallows up gigantic quantities of natural gas. According to Greenpeace, 62 to 176 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released depending on the type of mining. This is three to five times more than in conventional oil production.
Oil sands Big effort, big business
What has devastating consequences for the environment is a worthwhile business for the big oil companies – and not only for them. The province of Alberta also benefits from oil sands mining, as the taxes and fees paid by the oil sands companies account for almost a third of Alberta’s revenues.
Tourism, however, is likely to be affected, as vast tracts of land have been turned into desolate wastelands. In order to counteract this loss of tourism, Alberta’s key tourism site avoids including imagery of the mining areas.
¹ Petroleum, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/petroleum/5th-grade/
² Oil sands geology and the properties of Bitumen, https://www.oilsandsmagazine.com/technical/properties
⁴ Oil sands facts and statistics, https://www.alberta.ca/oil-sands-facts-and-statistics.aspx
⁵ Tar Sands, https://www.ienearth.org/what-we-do/tar-sands/