Oil Sands

Alberta Oil Sands: Canada’s Environmental Disaster

Oil sands rig

Canada’s oil sands in Alberta have been described as the “world’s most destructive oil operation” for their environmental impact.1 However, the oil sands contribute significantly to the Canadian economy, and they employ over 100,000 people in the sector.2 But, its environmental impact certainly dwarfs the economic upside.

Canada’s oil sands: How long will the Alberta oil sands last?

Alberta’s oil reserves are estimated to be the third-largest in the world, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Alberta has oil reserves in the ground consisting of approximately 170 billion barrels of oil.3 The industry currently pumps out around 2.8 million barrels per day.4

Due to this, oil companies could continue pumping oil from Alberta for decades to come. In fact, Alberta’s oil reserves are the primary reason that Canada has become the world’s fourth-largest producer of oil in the world.5

Where are oil sands located in Alberta?

Canada’s oil sands industry is primarily located in three regions within Alberta and Saskatchewan’s provinces, around the Athabasca River basin, Cold Lake and Peace River. Together, they cover a combined area of over 142,000 square kilometres.6

Canada’s oil sands industry is based in the middle of Canada’s thick boreal forests. This is a pristine and important ecosystem that contains a rich diversity of wildlife and trees. The forests are regarded as a key ecological treasure. But, critics say that the industrial development of oil sands and forest fires have cleared or degraded almost two million acres of trees over the past 20 years.7

Who owns the oil sands in Alberta? 

All five of Canada’s top oil companies are involved in oil sands extraction, which ship the majority of their oil and gas to US facilities for refining. These include:

  • Suncor Energy
  • Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL)
  • Imperial Oil
  • Cenovus Energy
  • Husky Energy8

The oil sands industry is primarily run by Canadian firms. There are also some foreign companies involved. In fact, there are 100 active projects operating in Alberta’s oil sands regions, run by companies from Canada, the US and China.

Photo by Life Of Pix from Pexels

What are the cons of Alberta’s oil sands industry?

There are plenty of downsides to the oil sands industry that are rarely fully explored in the media. Alberta’s oil is expensive to produce and particularly destructive to the environment. Alberta alone generates over twice as many emissions per barrel as the average amount produced in other parts of North America.9

Oil sands occur naturally as a mixture of bitumen, sand, clay and water. Bitumen is more expensive to extract than conventional oil. It needs steam to be pumped, as deep as one kilometre, to liquefy the bitumen and bring it to the surface. It then has to be processed further to be ready for use.10

Moreover, for every barrel of oil extracted, oil sands companies produce a barrel and a half of toxic sludge called ‘tailings’ that have to be stored for years. These are stored in tailings ponds that have now accumulated nearly 1.3 trillion litres of sludge. This waste by-product creates an additional cost to store and maintain it.11This means that most of Alberta’s oil producers can only make a profit if prices are at least USD $60 per barrel.12

Mining for oil sands also requires deforestation since much of the product is located in forested areas. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the air and reduces the earth’s capacity to turn CO2 back into oxygen.13

How does Alberta’s oil sands production affect the environment?

One major problem with mining oil sands is that for every barrel of oil extracted, over a barrel and a half of a thick toxic sludge is produced. Even worse, these ponds are now leaking their toxic by-product into the local environment. A recent report, produced by the governments of Canada, the US and Mexico, found that the sludge was potentially poisoning the local food and water supply.14

“The oil sands industry had a huge impact on caribou, bison, moose, birds, fish, the water, the forest. It’s affected our ability to travel, to gather food from the land – it’s really overwhelming” says Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, located near Fort Chipewyan, north of Fort McMurray.15

It also affects Canada’s carbon emissions. The country did not meet its 2020 carbon emission reduction target. It is also unlikely to meet its 2030 Paris climate target due to increasing emissions from the oil and gas sector.16

Canada’s oil sands are also producing air pollution, which causes acid rain. This toxic rain has damaged an area almost the size of Germany, according to one study.17

These factors indicate that Canada’s oil sands in Alberta are far from being a responsible and climate-friendly way to produce oil. Rather, the oil sands have been extremely destructive to our environment. This is not just a problem for Canada. It affects the whole world.


  1. Environment. (2019). The oil sands in Alberta, Canada are the world’s most destructive oil operation. This destruction is growing. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  2. Alberta.ca. (2017). Oil sands facts and statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.alberta.ca/oil-sands-facts-and-statistics.aspx.
  3. Environment. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it is growing.[online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  4. Alberta.ca. (2017). Oil sands facts and statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.alberta.ca/oil-sands-facts-and-statistics.aspx.
  5. Alberta.ca. (2017). Oil sands facts and statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.alberta.ca/oil-sands-facts-and-statistics.aspx.
  6. CAPP. (2019). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/.
  7. World Resources Institute. (2018). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/07/tar-sands-threaten-world-s-largest-boreal-forest.
  8. Parkland Institute. (n.d.). The Future of Alberta’s Oil Sands Industry: More Production, Less Capital, Fewer Jobs. [online] Available at: https://www.parklandinstitute.ca/the_future_of_albertas_oil_sands_industry.
  9. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oil sands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.
  10. Williams, N. (2017). Canada’s oil sands survive, but cannot thrive in a $50 oil world. Reuters. [online] 18 Oct. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-oilsands-economics-analysis-idUSKBN1CN0FD [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].
  11. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  12. Williams, N. (2017). Canada’s oil sands survive, but cannot thrive in a $50 oil world. Reuters. [online] 18 Oct. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-oilsands-economics-analysis-idUSKBN1CN0FD.
  13. Braun, I. (2021). What Are the Consequences of Deforestation? [online] Action Aid Recycling. Available at: https://actionaidrecycling.org.uk/what-are-the-consequences-of-deforestation/.
  14. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  15. Environment. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  16. National Observer. (2019). Canada’s climate gap widens yet again. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/01/30/analysis/canadas-climate-gap-widens-yet-again.
  17. thestar.com. (2018). Oilsands could eventually acidify an area the size of Germany, study says. [online] Available at: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/07/25/oilsands-could-eventually-acidify-an-area-the-size-of-germany-study-says.html [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].
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