It is well known that the use of crude oil is harmful to the natural world. Burning oil-based products such as gasoline to power our vehicles releases carbon dioxide (CO2). This gas then enters the atmosphere and contributes to global climate change.1 Possibly less familiar are the environmental impacts of the various methods by which this oil is actually sourced. Oil sands are one such method – so how are oil sands destroying the environment?
First, a brief introduction.
Oil Sands: the basics
Oil sands are a combination of sand, water and bitumen (oil that is too thick and heavy to flow on its own).2
Bitumen oil is recovered from the ground using one of two methods: the first, ‘open-pit mining’, is used to extract any bitumen deposits located within 75 metres of the ground surface. The second method, known as ‘in-situ’, extracts bitumen located deeper than 75 metres. In-situ extraction involves the use of steam, which is released deep into the ground via a well. This heats up the bitumen, allowing it to be pumped to the surface.3
Once it is recovered, the bitumen gets put through a series of refining processes. The end product is a synthetic crude oil from which gasoline and various other fuels can be made.4
Several countries across the globe contain oil sand deposits. By far the largest and most developed deposit, however, is situated in Alberta, Canada. Every day, the 120-odd Canadian oil sands projects pump out 2.6 million barrels of oil.5
How do oil sands harm the environment?
Oil sands generate more greenhouse gas emissions than any other form of oil extraction.6 This is due to the energy-intensive refining techniques required to separate the bitumen from the accompanying sand and water.
On top of this, chunks of Canada’s boreal-forest habitat – not only an important carbon stock, but also home to caribou, songbirds and lynx – are scraped away to access the oil sands beneath.7
Oil sands projects also demand large quantities of water. Every barrel of bitumen requires 3 barrels of fresh water, placing considerable pressure on nearby water sources.8
Arguably the most devastating impact of all, is the enormous volume of sludge-like waste-waters generated from the bitumen extraction processes.5
Once the bitumen oil has been extracted, the ‘leftovers’ of water, sand and various chemicals are stored in tailings ponds. These exposed ponds currently contain enough tailings waste to fill 500,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Moreover, the harmful contaminants contained within these waters make them so toxic that ducks and other wildlife have to be stopped from going near them.5
Open-mining of oil sands is one of the most expensive ways to generate crude oil in the world.9 What’s more, oil prices have seen a decline over recent years as more people transition to renewable energy sources.10 As such, it makes little sense to invest in an industry that is both economically nonviable and is incompatible with vital climate goals.
Alas, there are many ways in which oil sands are destroying the environment. Even more so than other forms of crude oil production. 9 Reduced investment in oil sands is therefore pivotal in the effort to meet climate goals, and protect wildlife. A step away from oil sands will be a step towards parting with our fossil-fuel addiction.
- Perera, F. (2017) Pollution from Fossil-Fuel Combustion is the Leading Environmental Threat to Global Paediatric Health and Equity: Solutions exist. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 15(1):16.
- Capp (2019). What are the oil sands? [Online] CAPP [Accessed May 2020].
- Toman, M., Curtright, A.E., and Ortiz, D.S., Darmstadter, J. and Shannon, B. (2008) ‘Oil Sands and Synthetic Crude Oil’ in Unconventional Fossil-Based Fuels [Online] Technical Report.
- Canadian Energy Research Institute (2014) Oil Sands Environmental Impacts [Online] Study No. 143.
- Leahy, S. (2019) This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing [Online] National Geographic. [Accessed May 2020].
- Hanania, J., Stenhouse, K. and Donev, J. (2018) Energy Education: Climate impacts of oil sands. [Online] University of Calgary. [Accessed May 2020].
- Biello, D. (2013) The Opposite of Mining: Tar Sands Steam Extraction Lessens Footprint, but Environmental Costs Remain. [Online] Scientific American. [Accessed May 2020].
- Oil Sands Magazine (2020). Oil Sands 101: Process Review. [Online] Oil Sands Magazine. [Accessed May 2020].
- Berman, T. (2017) Canada’s most shameful environmental secret must not remain hidden [Online] The Guardian. [Accessed May 2020].
- Ambrose, J. (2020) Over a barrel: how oil prices dropped below zero [Online] The Guardian. [Accessed May 2020].