Environmental Stewardship: Issue of Canadian Oil Sands

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Canadian oil sands, which is also known as tar sand are a large area of petroleum withdrawal from bitumen, located along the Athabasca River with its center of activity close to Fort McMurray in Alberta which is roughly 400km northeast of the provincial capital, Edmonton. The Canadian oil sands are the second-largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. Since 1970s, increase in global energy demand, high petroleum dependency and geopolitical clash in oil generating regions has driven the exploration of oil sources which, paired with advances in the field of petroleum engineering. Oil sands are generally called “unconventional” oil because the extraction process is more crucial than extracting from liquid oil reserves, causing higher costs of production and increased environmental burden. Alberta’s first profitable oil sands operation started in 1967. The exploration of oil sands significantly increased Canada’s total oil reserves by roughly around five billion barrels to an estimated 173 billion. Canada also has the third-largest oil reserves in the world, having 97 percent of the oil in the form of oil sands. The oil sands cover about 140,000 square km which is about 20 percent of the province of Alberta and approximately the size of the state of Florida. In the year 2012, extraction of oil sands was estimated roughly as $91 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product. Half of the oil which is used by Canada comes from oil sands. Researches estimated that the production of oil sands in Canada might double between 2010 and 2030 to 6.7 million barrels per day. The increase of extraction has increased in recent years, leading to impact on quality of air, water and land.

Oil Sands Extraction

Extraction of oil sands occurs in two different methods: surface mining and deep drilling. In surface mining, first the area of the soil is slabbed which is called overburden. Then a large open pit mines are created from which the bitumen is removed with shovels and trucks to process it physically and chemically for commercial use. The method of surface-mining is used to remove bitumen up to 70-100 m below the surface, based on the current technologies and their economic costs. Areas where the bitumen layer is deeper, deep (situ) drilling is used, machinery like steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) decided the beginning of the large scale commercial in situ drilling. Situ drilling has significantly changed the dimension of Canadian oil sands extraction from early 2000s. The methods used for extraction cause any environmental impacts and affect the region as well as the planet. During the process of extraction many toxic materials like high carbon and other greenhouse gases are emitted, also regional air pollution in the soil, water and air; loss of ecological habitat and biodiversity; water pollution; forest destruction; toxicity and seepage from tailing ponds; and high input of energy and water in general. Around 715 square km of boreal forest have already been destroyed or affected by oil sands mining and an additional 4,700 square km have been licensed for surface mining. Surface mining has come under public scrutiny for its visible ecological brunt on the natural landscape. Situ drilling leaves the vegetation cover of the immediate extraction area intact, but it widens the geographic reach of oil sands extraction significantly into areas where the bitumen layers are too deep to be viable for surface mining. It has high environmental costs, too: every barrel of oil produced by steam-assisted gravity drilling causes an estimated 55 kg of carbon emissions and burns 28 m3 of natural gas. Around 88,000 km2 have been licensed for in Situ drilling as of January 2013.


Oil sands development is carbon-intensive. The production and up-gradation needed to produce synthetic crude oil sand mining results in greenhouse gas emissions in the length of 62 to 164 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per barrel. Canadian government reports similarly suggest that “GHG emissions from oil sands mining and upgrading are about five times greater than those from conventional light or medium crude oil production”. Even if you look at it from a full life-cycle “well-to-wheels” basis, oil sands are overall still one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuel sources. Generating a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands by mining requires two to four barrels of freshwater. The government of Canada has approved the withdrawal of over 590,000,000 cubic meters of water per year for oil sand companies, which is approximately equivalent to the need of 3million people living in the city. The water is pumped from the Athabasca River for oil sands mining, and withdrawing water when the natural flow is low (primarily occurs in winter), harms the aquatic life in the river. Once, the water is used in the mining process, it cannot be returned to the river system because it becomes toxic in the extraction process and must be retained in the tailings ponds.


Cite this paper

Environmental Stewardship: Issue of Canadian Oil Sands. (2020, Nov 10). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/environmental-stewardship-issue-of-canadian-oil-sands/

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