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What are the benefits of oil sands?

canadian oil sands
What are the benefits of oil sands?
Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) oil sands mining operation. Photo Credit: Ryan Jackson. Available at: https://calgaryherald.com/business/energy/what-you-need-to-know-about-restarting-alberta-oilsands-production

Though some people say that there are many benefits to oil sands, such as an economic boost or the creation of jobs for local indigenous communities, the environmental costs associated with oil sands clearly outweigh them1. The exploitation of oil sand reserves across the world, particularly in Alberta, Canada, is creating a host of environmental challenges that appear to be ignored in the name of the large economic benefit1. And of course, even though these environmental issues pose a threat to the livelihood and well being of future generations, countries concerned remain enthusiastic to exploit these resources2.   

Oil sands: the basics

Firstly, oil sands are an unconventional source of oil3, made up of a mixture of sand, water, clay and a thick, heavy substance called bitumen4. Bitumen is so thick at room temperature it acts like cold mollasses4 and has been described to have a similar consistency to peanut butter5. For this reason, bitumen is unable to flow on its own and so conventional oil drilling techniques cannot extract it2. Instead, oil sands are mined, usually as surface mining and in situ recovery, using heat or solvents to extract the oil from the sands1,6. Finally, the end product derived from the bitumen that was extracted from the oil sands is called crude oil4.  

Economic benefits of oil sands

In general, Canada’s oil sands represent the third largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela7. In fact, the oil industry is a crucial part of the Canadian economy, making up 167.2 billion barrels of crude oil. To clarify, this is 97% of Canada’s 172.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves8.  Also, local companies in every province of Canada supply goods and services to the oil sands. This particularly contributes to creating jobs, growth and economic opportunity within local communities in the region7.

However, the truth is that the fossil fuel economy overall, including the oil sands industry, creates far less jobs when compared to renewable energy11. In fact, direct employment in the clean energy sector, which include hydro-, wind, solar and biomass power, has increased to 37%, amounting to 23,700 people12. Whereas 22,340 have been directly employed in the oil sands industry. In fact, energy efficiency jobs alone, which include manufacturing and installing energy-efficient appliances for example, are more than twice the total of all jobs within fossil fuel jobs in mining and drilling, transportation, processing, refining, and power generation11

Furthermore, the majority of oil sand extraction and production takes place on land owned by indigenous people – land which they have constitutionally reserved rights to use for hunting, gathering and performing ceremonies1. Yet, regardless of the persistent suing of oil companies and provincial and federal governments, no positive change has been done to protect the cultural heritage, land, ecosystems and human health of indigenous communities. Unfortunately, this goes to show how the continued support of oil sands in the name of economic opportunity prevails despite the controversial treaty violations1

Environmental consequences 

As the oil sands industry attempts to balance energy security and economic recovery, the third element of the three E’s -the environment- is undoubtedly being negatively affected13While this natural resource has been described as an ‘environmentally friendly form of energy’ and a part of the ‘clean energy future’1, it is in fact ‘dirtiest and most climate-destructive form of oil in the world’9. In brief, the environmental consequences of oil sands include a threat to wildlife and habitats, large emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), water contamination and overuse, air and water pollution, boreal forest destruction, an impact of local communities in the area and the list goes on10


Moreover, the oil sands is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada14. Unfortunately, a gallon of gasoline made from oil sands generates about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional oil15. NASA climatologist, James Hansen, argues that moving to oil sands – ‘one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet’ – is a step in the wrong direction. This clearly shows that governments either fail to understand the severity of the situation or they simply do not care1. On the up side, it is believed that carbon capture and storage techniques could potentially help curb oil sand GHG emissions by 11 to 14%16. This could potentially contribute to lessening the environmental impacts of oil sands.

Life cycle emissions of oil sands development compared to the average US crude oil. Source: IHS ENERGY. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18756

Boreal Forests

additionally, boreal forests are crucial components of the natural ecosystem and significant carbon sinks1. Also, these forests are home to diverse wildlife, pristine water bodies (lakes, rivers) and over one hundred thousand people. Storing an estimated 186 billion tonnes of carbon – an amount equal to 27 years’ worth of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels worldwide – boreal forests are undoubtedly important to preserve1. However, land change from oil sand exploitation is destroying this important carbon sink, and with it wildlife and habitats are lost1.  


Furthermore, all oil sands land must be 100% remediated and re-claimed after the oil sand extraction process8. In brief, reclamation ensures that the land returns to its natural state, with local vegetation and wildlife to nurture a self-sustaining ecosystem8. However, oil sand mining can and often does cause irreversible effects to natural landscapes1. Currently, only 0.1% of land disturbed by oil sands mining have been “certified reclaimed”, compared with the 10% being “under reclamation” and the remaining 90% still in use or disturbed1


Overall, the goal is to achieve a balance between energy development, increased economic performance and environmental improvement by transforming oil sand production to a more sustainable and green energy superpower13. Ideally, oil should stay in the ground if we are to save the earth. It is way too late on the Earths clock to transition gently. 

Should Canada shut down its oilsands? Source: Financial Post. Available at https://financialpost.com/commodities/energy/should-canada-shut-down-its-oilsands


    1. Farmer, J., (2017). Tar sands or scar sands: the oil sands are a huge benefit to the Canadian economy but is this at the expense of the environment that is left behind for future generations? (Doctoral dissertation, Bournemouth University).
    2. Brown, Z. (2020). How does oil sands mining work? An overview – Oil Sands. [online] Oil Sands. Available at: http://oilsand.org/how-does-oil-sands-mining-work-an-overview/
    3. Sakata, L. (2020). Canadian Oil Sands – Oil Sands. [online] Oil Sands. Available at: http://oilsand.org/canadian-oil-sands/?fbclid=IwAR0WJLp1kvEXCW8rqyTyHA_w4kd0pwl0tlAfBbBqq2Kxz509nqrhothuzIE
    4. (2020). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/
    5. Oil, A. (2020). Oil Sands Products – Background – Alberta Oil Sands Products. [online] Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/noaaoilsandsproject/bitumen
    6. American Geosciences Institute. (2018). What are tar sands? [online] Available at: https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/what-are-tar-sands.
    7. ‌Context Magazine by CAPP. (2019). How the oil sands benefit all of Canada. [online] Available at: https://context.capp.ca/infographics/2017/ig_canada-oil-sands-supply-chain?utm_source=Internal%20Twitter&utm_medium=Context&utm_campaign=Infographics&utm_content=Oil%20Sands%20Supply%20Chain
    8. Natural Resources Canada (2014). Oil Sands: Economic contributions | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18756 
    9. Natural Resources Council of Maine. (2013). Tar Sands Oil. [online] Available at: https://www.nrcm.org/programs/climate/global-warming-air-pollution/tar-sands-oil/#:~:text=Tar%20sands%20oil%20is%20the,almost%20impossible%20to%20clean%20up.
    10. com. (2012). Tar Sands Oil: Pros and Cons. [online] Available at: https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2012/tar-sands-oil-pros-and-cons/81876
    11. Basav Sen and Paul Steidler (2020). Times Free Press. Perspective: Is the emphasis on renewable energy good for the country? [online] Available at: https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2020/aug/08/is-emphasis-renewable-energy-good-country/529278/ [Accessed 20 Aug. 2020].
    12. (2015). Clean energy provides more jobs than oilsands, report says. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/clean-energy-provides-more-jobs-than-oilsands-report-says-1.2857520 [Accessed 20 Aug. 2020].
    13. Carson, B. (2011). Sustainable solutions in the oil sands. [online] Policy Options. Available at: https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/from-climate-change-to-clean-energy/sustainable-solutions-in-the-oil-sands/
    14. PBS NewsHour. (2009). Canadian Oil Sands Produce Economic Benefits, Environmental Costs. [online] Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/canadian-oil-sands-produce-economic-benefits-environmental-costs [Accessed 20 Aug. 2020].
    15. Union of Concerned Scientists. (2020). What Are Tar Sands? [online] Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-are-tar-sands [Accessed 20 Aug. 2020].
    16. ‌Oil Sands Question and Response (OSQAR) Blog. (2012). Will CCS help reduce oil sands GHG emissions? [online] Available at: https://osqar.suncor.com/2012/01/will-ccs-help-reduce-oil-sands-ghg-emissions.html
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