How Things Work: Canada’s Oil Sands

With the topic of peak global oil production moving more into the mainstream, you have perhaps heard of the Canadian oil sands. There, huge tracts of remote forested land are strip-mined to obtain a type of thick crude oil called bitumen. The country’s main deposits are found mostly in the western province of Alberta and cover over 140,000 square kilometres — an area larger than England.

According to a recent report by Richard Heinberg, entitled Searching for a Miracle, the only advantages of the oil sands over conventional petroleum are (1) large amounts remain to be extracted and (2) Canada is geopolitically close to and friendly with the biggest importer of oil — the United States.

Extracting and refining this hydrocarbon, however, is “the most polluting and carbon intensive oil process on earth, draining wetlands, diverting rivers and stripping all trees and vegetation from the forest”, according to International Boreal Forest Conservation Science Panel. This led the UN special advisor, Maude Barlow, to describe the landscape of the oil sand development in Canada as reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor.

Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility is one of the oldest in operation at the tar sands. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility is one of the oldest in operation at the tar sands. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

Historically, raw bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene peoples to waterproof their canoes. European fur traders first discovered the resource in the early 18th century and Canada’s colonists soon began experimenting with techniques to separate and upgrade it. It wasn’t until 1967 that the first commercially viable Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) plant opened, using surfactants in the separation process.

Today, the scale has grown and the technology has much advanced. Before looking at the implications and drivers of this controversial practice, here is a breakdown of the complex process of extracting fuel from the oil sands.

How oil is forced from the sands

Impacts galore

Even from that brief overview of the process, it is obvious that the environmental and social impacts of exploiting the oil sands are vast and too numerous for us to detail in one brief article. Here is a list of examples and places to find more in-depth information.

An open mine pit in front of Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

An open mine pit in front of Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

Ecological destruction

Perhaps it is hard for Canadians, or any of us, to imagine the sheer scale of the oil sands. A new Greenpeace-produced film called Petropolis, shot primarily from a helicopter, offers us the most frightening view so far. The photos for this story are used with permission of Petropolis.

The oil sands area includes much boreal forest. Clear cutting of these remove sinks that would absorb future carbon and could release billions of tonnes of stored CO2 into the atmosphere.

Health and water depletion

As we mention in the description of the process, oil sands production requires an enormous amount of water (4 barrels of water for each barrel of oil). Further, the toxic tailings ponds — where the contaminated water leftover from pre-processing the bitumen is stored — pose disturbing health and environmental risks. Cancer-causing pollutants contained in this sludge migrate through the groundwater system and leak into the surrounding soil and surface water.

Another film, H2Oil,  is a character-driven documentary that tells the stories of those suffering and those attempting to defend water in Alberta against tar sands expansion and the heartbreak and politicization they face.

Indigenous rights

Alberta is home to 44 First Nations indigenous groups. Many are being affected by the oil sands’ development, suffering consequences that range from land rights or health issues to loss of livelihood.

One example is a legal challenge by the Beaver Lake Cree Nation that maintains the boom in tar sands extraction is destroying their hunting and fishing lands. They say that caribou, elk, moose, deer and other animals are disappearing or infected with diseases, fish stocks are damaged by water pollution, and plants used for traditional medicine are under threat.

Gooey gold

Today, exploitation of Canada’s “dirty oil” is nonetheless set to continue, against the myriad impacts and the fact that producing it emits much more greenhouse gas than conventional crude oil does. Shell admits to emitting 15% more in their oil sands operations but estimates go as high as 75%. (This is why some caution that more data and lifecycle analysis is needed.)

Of course getting oil from the sands is expensive. But then again, in a world of dwindling oil supplies and ever-mounting world demand, cheap oil is a thing of the past and the oil addicted don’t seem to mind.

Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility is run 24 hours, seven days a week. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility is run 24 hours, seven days a week. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

In fact, the International Energy Agency’s recently released World Energy Outlook 2009 report predicts long-term growth for Canada’s oil sands production climbing to 5 million barrels a day by 2030. But Heinberg in Searching for a Miracle argues that “the environmental costs of expanding production to this extent may be unbearable.”

Canada’s oil sands are an ideal “investable” location for privately owned, largely foreign (particularly US) energy companies, for such a thing requires “a compliant host government to allow you to wring profits from the devastated landscape.” This according to authour Jeff Rubin, former chief economist and chief strategist at CIBC World Markets, who very clearly explains the world’s current oil market situation in his book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller.

“We believe that Canada is a pillar in the energy security of the United States,” the U.S. ambassador to Canada recently said while visiting Alberta. And surely the world’s biggest economy, which consumes almost the entire sum of Canada’s energy exports, is a prized customer that both the Albertan and the federal governments are reluctant to refuse.

“To be frank on the oil sands, we’ve got to do a better job environmentally. We hear a lot of pressure on that,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. “At the same time, the development of these things is pretty important, in our judgment, to North American energy security.”

Chances therefore seem high that oil sands emissions will continue to spiral up, despite oil companies claimed efforts to reduce “emissions intensity“, since expansion is definitely on the horizon as oil prices begin to rise.  Canada’s government has delayed passing climate legislation, instead unveiling a plan in 2007 that advocated intensity based caps on large emitters and implementation of carbon capture and storage in the oil sands industry. The plan, considered a ‘lame duck’ by environmentalists, was even criticised by the country’s own Environment Commissioner and was abandoned early this year. It has yet to be replaced.

Ninety-percent of the water used to process bitumen is dumped in giant, toxic lakes called tailings ponds. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

Ninety-percent of the water used to process bitumen is dumped in giant, toxic lakes called tailings ponds. ©Greenpeace / Eamon MacMahon.

“Canada is now effectively waiting to see what sort of climate change policy the Americans will come up with,” award-winning Canadian journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk told us by e-mail. In his book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Nikiforuk is brutal when summarising the situation:

“A business-as-usual case for the tar sands will change Canada forever. It will enrich a few powerful companies, hollow out the economy, destroy the world’s third-largest watershed, industrialize nearly one-quarter of Alberta’s landscape, consume the last of the nation’s natural gas supplies, and erode Canadian sovereignty.”

Would this not be a good time for Canada to focus on the advantages of clean and renewable energy development and of exports of same to that superpower to the south?

Creative Commons License
How Things Work: Canada’s Oil Sands by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.

Join the Discussion

  • citt

    Just reading about the extract process makes me ill and extremely burdened by my 21st century lifestyle…

  • sad_canuck

    Watching those trailers really makes me sick. I can’t imagine what the consequences will be in 10 years from now. Will this area be totally deforested, strip mined, drained of clean water, and doused with toxic effluent just to meet a few decades, if that, of oil consumption? It really makes me sad.

    • Gibsontr

      My dear friend. As bleak a picture they paint in this overview I would encourage you to go there and see it. The wheels of mis-information have been working overtime and have paint a bleak picture but not a true one.

      Before one can truly comment one needs to visit and see for themselves. There is more focus on reclamation, and clean up then anywhere else in the world.

      I have been to multiple China projects and the dismal environmental disaster that exists there is unprecedented. Not unlike China; Russia has over 50 years completely devastated vast areas of there country.

      The oil sands have been operating for decades, and vigilance is important to ensure continued maintaining of the eco-culture, and surrounding areas, but the oil sands continue to be a good source of oil for North America, it is well maintained and has an enormously low impact where it is located.

      You can travel 4000 miles north, west, east without running into any significant population. The area is for all purposes can not sustain life. it is marsh.

      Before people comment , they need to get the real story and see for themselves. Get the whole story and see how things really work.

      Don’t get pulled into the lies of one side for both will try and manipulate.

      • Unimpressed

        I have been there; I have seen it – it is not what I would call “low impact”.

        You say – “You can travel 4000 miles north, west, east without running into any significant population. The area is for all purposes can not sustain life. it is marsh. ”

        There is a significant population that is directly involved with the environment being developed by the oil sands. It is the Chipewyan, Cree and Dene First Nations. The marshlands are exactly what they rely on for life sustaining activities.

        I agree that propaganda is a tool used by both sides but with the recent scientific findings of the Oil Sands Advisory Panel, NRTEE, The Parkland Institute and many other independent and stake-holding groups, it is hard to ignore the negative social and environmental effects of the oil sands operations.

        A 30% cancer rate amongst an isolated population of 1200 located directly downstream of the oil sands operations is not to be taken lightly.

        I think that the main issue facing the oil sands operation is that the water management is fragmented, complex and lacks collaboration or coordination.

        I also think your comments are condescending and extremely narrow minded. Telling us that we are not as bad as other countries does not make what we are doing any better. A weak argument indeed.

  • chrisbrodin

    We get a few more years of relatively cheap oil, but at what price? We are quickly arriving to the point where greed and excess and over-population will force us to our own destruction. Maybe a few of us will be left to say- What happened? Unless we start changing things now. It is time to get proactive and not just listen to the powers that be (the ones making all of the money). Greenpeace is a good place to start.
    I hate feeling helpless. To quote a movie, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

  • BrendanBarrett

    This article in the Oil Drum gives a good explanation of how the oil sands are extracted. Worthwhile read.

  • siXis

    Did you know that in order to construct any sort of building / city expansion the exact same process of clear cut / top soil removal is used.

    Overlay a scale image of any large city over the oil sand development(s).

    The tens of thousands of running vehicles, the power requirements of the utilities to keeps everything running, the GARBAGE produced. Each one of these things adding accumulating every day makes a picture that in my mind is no better.

  • Change comes with knowledge, Emotion does not create knowledge it only reduces it by using psychological methods to create fear and intimidation. Steps should be taken to reduce the impact, however blaming one nation or another for buying the product is not going to do anything to stop the situation from happening in the first place. There are plenty of buyers waiting to step in and buy oil. The question is not will oil be extracted, it is how safe and how can the land be reclaimed once they have what they want, that is the real question. The fact that it is there cannot be changed, the fact that the process has been taking place for decades cannot be changed, the only thing that can be changed here is the process.

  • disqus_NNsJMCfmR5

    Say what you will people on how bad YOU think the oil sands are. These companies that extract the bitumen in all cases regenerate the land and in some cases better then it was before. All in all, the oil is coming out and there is no green peace party that is going to stop that. Oil is crucial in more ways then you realize.

    • You will continue to believe what you choose to, no doubt. However, for those who are interested in facts, according the Alberta gov’t’s own stats, only a fraction of mined land has been certified as reclaimed to date:

      And guess what? Alberta’s auditor general says the province may not be requiring oilsands companies to save enough money to ensure their mines are cleaned up at the end of their life:

      Finally, scientists (including one of Canada’s most respected & award-winning) know the industry’s claim that you repeat here of making disturbed lands “better” than they were is fallacious. Check out: “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon” as an example:

      • disqus_NNsJMCfmR5

        It doesn’t matter Miss Carol S. The oil is coming out no matter where oil is in this world and Canada correctly compensates their employees properly when paying them. We are consious about our environment, unlike other countries such as Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or even China. If you happen to have oil on your property in any of these countries then these governments just come and take from you. Let’s say that your house is in the way on where equipment or drilling will occur, then they just forcefully remove you, but you can’t stop them because the oil is coming out! Read the book “Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands” written by Ezra Levant who is a Canadian lawyer and lobbyist.At the end of the day Carol we will agree to disagree.

        Sent from my Samsung device

        ——– Original message ——–

  • disqus_NNsJMCfmR5

    The oil is coming out, so pissoff to put it mildly.

  • profwatson

    Tar sand oil and extraction are destroying mother earth. There should be no compromise in the defense of mother earth. The Trudeau government will put a stop to it.