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What is an oil sand?
Oil sands are a mix of sand, water, clay, and bitumen, which is type of oil. They have a very thick, viscous texture1. Oil sand projects extract this oil from the sand.
The oil is extracted and flows through a pipeline to refineries. Then it is turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum-based products.2 Consequently, the production of products mean there are more GHG gases released into the atmosphere – contributing further to climate change.
Oil sands are found in parts of Venezuela, the United States and Russia. However, the largest oil sand project is in Alberta, Canada. Its area is more than 142,000 km2 and extraction started in 19671.
Environmental harm of the Alberta oil sands
Canada is the sixth largest oil producer in the world, and the country is driven by the economic gain of oil sands projects. In 2018, it brought in $108 billion to Canada’s GDP and 528,000 jobs3. Despite that, there is no doubt that oil sands creates a lot of harm to the environment.
Firstly, production on oil sands releases GHG. Research shows that the oil sands would release 240 billion metric tons of carbon if they were all burnt4. Furthermore, oil sands release more CO2 than traditional oil extraction. This is a direct impact that will increase global warming, which leads to environmental issues, such as rising sea levels.
Moreover, Alberta oils sands forms harmful air pollutants. In fact, it is one of the biggest source of pollutants in North America5. According to the WHO, pollutants in the air can lead to respiratory diseases and lung cancer6. For example, it is thought that air pollution from the oil sands has led to 23 cases of cancer out of 94 people in Fort Chipewyan 7.
Furthermore, oil sands impact the water quality. This is due to extracting oil sands needing lots of water. The natural water cycle and habitats become disturbed. For instance, the downstream flow of Athabasca River will decrease by 30% if water use does not changed by 20508.
Social impacts of Alberta oil sands
Oil sands projects also have social impacts. Oil sands affect local groups; impacts include making it hard for them to gather food9. As well as that, money is used to build a pipeline and not improve the quality of life for the local people. Furthermore, extending the pipeline will increase our dependance on fossil fuels in the future.
On the other hand, Canada claim to retrieve most of the mined land by replacing soils. Even though the reclamation is not fast enough for the rate of land degradation10.
- CAPP (2019). What are oil sands?
- CAPP (2019). Oil sands can tribute to Canada’s economy.
- CAPP (2019). Land reclamation.
- Biello, D (2013). How much will tar sands oil add to global warming, Scientific American.
- Chung, E (2016). Alberta’s oil sands and industry is a huge source of harmful air pollution, study says, Technology and Science.
- WHO (2013). Health effects of particulate matter.
- Financial Post (2014). Oil sands pollution linked to higher cancer rates of Fort Chipewyan for first time. University of Manitoba.
- Energy Education (2019). Water impacts of oil sands.
- National Geographic (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation and its growing.
- Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel (2010). Environmental & health impacts of Canada’s oil sands industry.