Oil sands extraction in Alberta, Canada

Oil Sands, Alberta, Canada. rel=
Looking more like Mordor than planet earth - Canadian tar sands mines larger than Greater Manchester dominate the landscape next to the Athabasca River, with no proven way to reclaim the boreal forest.
© Rezac / WWF-UK

What are oil sands?

Oil sands are a mixture of bitumen and sand. The province of Alberta has proven reserves of 174 billion barrels of oil, second in size only to Saudi Arabia.
However, oil sands production is a carbon-intensive process because it is a hugely inefficient way of extracting and refining the oil.

For surface deposits, 18m (60ft) tall excavators scrape off the topsoil and dump the sands into trucks as big as a house.

For deeper deposits, steam is produced to warm up the sands. Further energy is required to separate the tarry residue and convert it into pure oil.

The huge mines and tailings ponds (where toxic waste water is pumped) are so large they can be seen from space.

Production is currently 1 million barrels per day (bpd). But by 2015 the industry is aiming for 3 million bpd and 5-6 million bpd by 2030.

Oil companies
All of the oil majors, as well as Canadian firms have made multibillion-dollar investments in the oil sands in recent years with $100 billion in investment proposed by 2020.

BP has followed Statoil into the oil sands, abandoning its beyond petroleum mantra completely. Shell is aiming to have 15% of production from unconventionals by 2015 (as opposed to conventional oil extraction by drilling).

Concerns about the extraction
WWF is questioning why both Shell and BP’s marketing and public relations is about a low carbon future, yet the capital investment programme is focused on high carbon projects.

The proposed rapid expansion of Alberta’s oil sands is putting excessive strain on local communities and not just the environment. WWF wants a halt to the expansion of oil sands, which are currently out of control.

The human race is going to extreme lengths to ‘recarbonise’ its activities, at a time when rapid decarbonisation is needed.

Unconventional Oil report, 2008

Discover the oil sands

In 2007, WWF's Alex Hartridge took 4 journalists and photographer Jiri Rezac to Canada to witness the human and ecological impact of the world's latest oil boom - Alberta's oil sands.
Find out more

Impact on the climate

It takes around 3 times as much energy to produce a barrel of oil from oil sands as it does for typical oil extraction. (85.5kg CO2 per barrel compared to 28.6kg CO2).
The expansion of oil sands is the fastest growing contributor to Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, yet the Canadian government is failing to regulate its carbon emissions effectively with absolute targets.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change has calculated that the current regulatory regime could reward industry for business as usual, whilst carbon dioxide emissions more then double  [PDF report].

Canada is set to miss its Kyoto targets. At the Bali Convention on climate change in December 2007, Canada embarrassed itself by siding with the United States. The federal government continues to promote intensity targets which will never deliver the absolute cuts that are needed.

Industry and government have championed carbon capture and storage as a solution. Yet this unproven technology is at least 10 years away from providing a partial fix – it should not be license to increase emissions in the meantime.

To compound the problem, the heavy oil is being extracted to supply the growing demand of the United States, which has the least efficient vehicle fleet in the world. The current US Administration is primarily concerned with increasing supply of oil, rather than reducing demand and developing alternatives, which could also improve energy security.

Fuel produced from oil sands has higher lifecycle emissions than conventional oil production and should be excluded by low carbon fuel standards being proposed in the United States.

Impacts on forests and species

The oil sands reserves cover an area of 140,000km2 of the boreal forest - equivalent to 25 % of Alberta (approximately the size of France).
The extraction of oil sands requires huge impacts above the ground with survey lines, mines, processing plants, pipelines and drilling sites.

Oil sands mining has left swathes of forest removed, fragmenting the habitat of the native caribou. Shell has promised to restore the habitat, yet no reclaimed land has been certified.

The Canadian Boreal Forest alone stores 186 billion tonnes of carbon - equivalent to 27 years of the world's carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels. In digging up the forest, the peat wetlands are disturbed, releasing greenhouse gases and disturbing the earth’s balance.

In situ extraction of oil sands does not require mining, but the extensive infrastructure to generate and inject steam underground and bring out the liquefied tar sprawls across the landscape. As a result up to 80% of these areas may be lost as viable habitat for caribou, who avoid open areas.

The Canadian Boreal Initiative gathered support from 1500 scientists from 50 countries to call for greater protection of this natural resource.

Impacts on freshwater

Water is used to mobilise and process the tar and sand. Oil sands require from 2 to 4.5 barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil.
The local Athabasca river cannot supply the quantities of water required for the proposed expansion, and the ecological viability of the river is already threatened by low flows and low oxygen levels.

The river cannot support the proposed expansion of oil sands.

Extraction of groundwater would lead to the draining of the wetlands.

Using saline aquifers would simply result in more contaminants to dispose of.

All the while the waste builds up in large lakes. The water is so toxic, noise cannons are used to prevent birds landing on the water.

The dams holding this water are the largest in the world (by volume). Yet there is limited monitoring by the government, with no figures available to compare contaminant levels up and down stream of the oil sands operations.

The First Nations community at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca are concerned about the contamination of the water, lake sediment and the fish that they rely on. Local doctors have even raised the alarm about unusual levels of a rare cancer, and there are calls for an investigation by the Canadian Health Department.

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