Climate protest

Nestled in Canada’s pristine and ecologically important boreal forest is its tar sands industry. An area the size of Florida has been carved out over decades to house this industry.1 Since 1968, the amount of waste byproduct from tar sands – called ‘tailings’ – has increased from zero to nearly 1.3 trillion litres.2 These fluid tailings are stored in giant lakes that have grown so big that they can be seen from space.3

Alberta’s tar sands: Before and after human intervention

Modern-day tar sands development in Alberta began in 1967 when the Great Canadian Oil Sands consortium – now called Suncor Inc. – started producing oil.4 The environmental impact of tar sands mining was known from an early stage.

In 1973, an Alberta Environment report said, “The disposal of tailings from the hot water extraction process represents the most imminent environmental constraint to the future expansion of this recovery method”.5 It was right.

It is hard to overstate the impact of tar sands mining on Alberta. Over decades, an area of about 142,200 square kilometres (54,900 square miles) has been used for mining bitumen, which is then converted into oil. Forests are cleared for both open-pit (surface mining) and in situ (hot water wells) mining. The open-pit mines can cover large tracts of land and grow to more than 80 metres depth. Massive trucks remove up to approximately 650,000 tonnes of sand every day.

The impact of Alberta’s tar sands is so large that even satellite imagery can capture it.6 Moreover, once bitumen has been mined, it is processed in large refineries and transported. As tar sands oil is thicker and more corrosive than other types of oil, pipelines carrying the oil will have a higher chance of leaking, say experts. 

Tar sands waste byproduct

The worst impact of Alberta’s tar sands is caused by the waste byproduct it generates. Extracting one barrel of bitumen produces 1.5 barrels of waste byproduct.7

Over 40 years, the tailings ponds used to store that waste have grown exponentially in order to hold 1.3 trillion litres. This is enough waste to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools. Canadian politicians have repeatedly promised to deal with this waste with little to show for it. In the past decade alone, tar sands waste stored in tailings ponds has nearly doubled in volume. It could cost Canadian taxpayers at least CAD $27 billion to clean up.8

Leaving tar sands in the ground would have preserved one of the most important ecosystems in the world. Now, it will take generations to deal with the waste that has accumulated.

Photo by Saph Photography from Pexels

Why should everyone care about Alberta’s tar sands?

The Alberta tar sands industry has been labelled “the world’s most environmentally destructive oil operation” by National Geographic magazine. The tar sands industry is located in the middle of Canada’s ecologically important boreal forest. The production of tar sands creates a waste byproduct that has to be stored in huge lakes that will likely stay there for decades.9 It has created massive pit mines that blight the landscape and will take decades to repair.10

Mining tar sands burns even more fossil fuels. It is a highly energy-intensive process. In fact, it is among the most energy-intensive oils in the world.11 Also, transporting tar sands to the US – mostly through pipelines – can be dangerous and can lead to destructive oil spills.12

Everyone should care about Alberta’s tar sands because the industry’s outsized environmental impact contributes to global warming and affects the whole world.

Sources

  1. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  2. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  3. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  4. Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP). (n.d.). History of the Oil Sands. [online] Available at: http://www.ramp-alberta.org/resources/development/mining.aspx.
  5. Paskey, J., Steward, G. and Williams, A. (2013). The Alberta Oil Sands Then and Now: An Investigation of the Economic, Environmental and Social Discourses Across Four Decades. [online] . Available at: https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/e2e74e71-9160-4a5d-92c9-d06b00d08441/view/28c75d81-c281-4409-b751-04611ce1c062/TR-38-20–20Paskey-20Then-20and-20Now.pdf [Accessed 15 Jun. 2021].
  6. Nasa.gov. (2011). World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/Athabasca.
  7. www.grida.no. (n.d.). Growth in the volume of stored oil-sand tailings | GRID-Arendal. [online] Available at: https://www.grida.no/resources/11430 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2021].
  8. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  9. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  10. Rooney, R.C., Bayley, S.E. and Schindler, D.W. (2012). Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 109(13), pp.4933–4937. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/109/13/4933.full [Accessed 4 Feb. 2020].
  11. Israel, B. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.
  12. Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks. (2011). [online] . Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf.