FEATURED: Canadian Oil Sands

Oil Sands Processing

Oil sands are a combination of sand, clay and water that contain a heavy crude oil variant called bitumen.1 But, this complex hydrocarbon is almost solid at room temperature and does not flow without extensive processing.2 Subsequently, there are two ways to extract the bitumen: mining or in situ.3 Both are complex, energy-intensive and expensive processes.3 As a result, oil sands processing is considered the most environmentally damaging oil extraction process in use today.4 Consequently, the legitimacy of expanding it in Canada is controversial.4 

Athabasca Oil Sands

In Alberta, Canada, the destructive effects of oil sands processing have been enormous. This oil sand location is the world’s third largest oil reserve,5 holding around 10 percent of the global oil reserve.2 Deposits here cover an area of roughly 140,000 square kilometers – larger than England.5 But, to extract the bitumen, huge tracts of forested land have been strip-mined, with enormous environmental repercussions.4 The land is first drained of any water and then bulldozers remove trees, peat moss and soil to expose the sandy deposit.4 Subsequently, the process destroys or displaces all wildlife in the area and leaves toxic tailing ponds behind.2

Oil sands processing in Alberta

In addition, as per the Paris Agreement, Canada is committed to reducing its carbon emissions. However, as emissions from its oil and gas sectors rise, Canada seems increasingly likely to miss its 2030 target.6 Above all, oil sands processing is greatly adding to the country’s CO2 emissions.7 It causes 2.2 times as many emissions per barrel than the average crude oil in North America.7 Moreover, mining operations are expanding in Alberta and producers are seeking to access deeper, lower quality bitumen. This bitumen is even further from processing facilities and its extraction will continue to inflate the overall emissions of the sector.7 

Tailing Ponds

Meanwhile, the oil sands processing in Alberta produces growing numbers of tailing ponds.6 For instance, the extraction of bitumen involves pumping tailings of water, sand, clay and small quantities of oil to ponds. Subsequently, this allow the solids to separate from the water and oil.8 However, the waste ponds are so toxic that wildlife has to be prevented from going near them.6

Tailing ponds

For every barrel of bitumen shipped out of Alberta, between six and twelve barrels of tailings waste is produced.6 Consequently, there are already enough tailings ponds to fill over half a million Olympic swimming pools yet there is no solution to clean up the existing toxic tailings ponds which continue to leak into the Athabasca River.6 Furthermore, the government of Alberta estimates there to be a further 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels of oil trapped in the oil sands.9 In short, to extract this oil would necessitate a far greater environmental impact on the area.

Oil sands processing is undoubtedly an environmentally damaging method of extracting oil.10 Indeed, extraction has a catastrophic effect on nearby flora and fauna and it produces high levels of CO2.11 With so many associated harmful impacts on local ecology, air and water, it is unsurprising that environmentalists are campaigning against expanding oil sands processing in Canada.


  1. Brett, Denny. Oil Sands. Student Energy. https://www.studentenergy.org/topics/oil-sands Accessed July 20, 2020.
  2. Oil Sands 101: Process Overview. Oil Sands Magazine. https://www.oilsandsmagazine.com/technical/oilsands-101 Accessed July 20, 2020.
  3. Prince, Andrew. Infographic: How Tar Sands Oil Is Produced. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2012/08/16/158907708/infographic-how-tar-sands-oil-is-produced?t=1595246798603 Published August 16, 2012. Accessed July 20, 2020.
  4. Smith, Carol. How Things Work: Canada’s Oil Sands. Our World. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/canadas-oil-sands Published November 16, 2009. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  5. Oil sands facts and statistics. Alberta. https://www.alberta.ca/oil-sands-facts-and-statistics.aspx Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  6. Leahy, Stephen. This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/04/worlds-most-destructive-oil-operation-and-its-growing Published April 15, 2019. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  7. Israel Benjamin. The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. Pembina. https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands Published October 4, 2017. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  8. Oil Extraction. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). https://www.capp.ca/oil/extraction/ Accessed July 20, 2020.  
  9. Chen, James. Oil Sands. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/o/oilsand.asp Updated May 22, 2020. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  10. What Are Tar Sands? Union of Concerned Scientists.  https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-are-tar-sands. Updated Feb 23, 2016. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
  11. Stenhouse, Kailyn, Hanania, Jordan, Sheardown, Ashley, Donev, Jason. Environmental impacts of oil sands. Energy Education. https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Environmental_impacts_of_oil_sands Updated January 4, 2019. Accessed July 20, 2020. 
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Oil Sands Mining in Canada


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