Oil Sands

Can the CO2 Created by Mining Oil Sands Be Captured?

Mining truck, used for oil sands

Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Its oil is the reason why Canada is the only G7 country to increase its greenhouse gas emissions since the Paris Agreement.1 So, why should Canada stop mining oil sands?

Environmentalists say that Canada must transition to clean energy to cut its emissions and play its part in stopping climate change.2 ‌But, oil sands advocates say it could instead capture carbon dioxide emissions from mining oil sands and store them underground.3 So, is this feasible?

Mining oil sands: How Canada is the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter

Canada’s oil sands industry is more carbon-intensive than other forms of oil extraction.4 It also uses more energy and creates more waste by-product than oil extraction in other regions, such as the Middle East.5 In fact, Canada produces more greenhouse gas emissions per person than any other G20 economy.6

The reason for this is simple. Canada’s oil sands industry produces bitumen – a thick sludge, not the traditional light oil. The bitumen needs an energy-intensive process to extract it from the ground. Then, it has to be specially processed and pumped through pipelines to the US for further processing.

A barrel of oil sands crude needs three to six barrels of freshwater.7 Also, oil sands are particularly ‘dirty’ as they produce a thick waste by-product stored in large tailings ponds. In fact, these ponds are so big that they can be seen from space.8

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

How economically sound is it to capture CO2 from mining oil sands?

For Canada, carbon capture and storage (CCS) may prove useful in cutting its high greenhouse gas emissions. But, the technology is too expensive and too small-scale to make a big difference. In April 2021, the government announced that it would offer tax credit for money invested in CCS technology. Advocates say that carbon can be captured and stored underground where the oil sands are located in Alberta.9 But, it has been extremely costly so far.

The International Energy Agency says that the cost of capturing a tonne of carbon can vary from USD $15 to USD $120 per tonne.10 The incentives may change in the coming years. Canada’s carbon tax is due to rise from CAD $30 to CAD $170 per tonne by 2030. A much higher carbon tax makes it cheaper for companies to capture their emissions than to release them.11 

An alternative: Clean renewable energy

But, environmentalists say that Canada has a better and cheaper alternative: investing in clean renewable energy.12 Clean energy jobs in Canada are growing nearly four times faster than the average, according to recent analysis. By 2030, the renewables sector should employ more Canadians than the fossil fuel industry.13 It is time for Canada to speed up its transition to renewables.

Can the CO2 Created by Mining Oil Sands Be Captured


  1. Austen, I. and Flavelle, C. (2021). Trudeau Was a Global Climate Hero. Now Canada Risks Falling Behind. The New York Times. [online] 21 Apr. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/21/world/canada/trudeau-climate-oil-sands.html.‌
  2. DePape, B. (n.d.). 3 Reasons Why Governments in Canada Should Invest in Renewables, Not Pipelines. [online] The Council of Canadians. Available at: https://canadians.org/analysis/3-reasons-why-governments-canada-should-invest-renewables-not-pipelines [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  3. cosia.ca. (n.d.). Carbon Capture and Storage | Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – COSIA. [online] Available at: https://cosia.ca/initiatives/greenhouse-gases/projects/carbon-capture-and-storage [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  4. 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.
  5. McNeill, J. (2017). Tailings ponds: The worst is yet to come. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/tailings-ponds-worst-yet-come.
  6. thestar.com. (2018). Canada produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other G20 country, new report says | The Star. [online] Available at: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/11/14/canada-produces-most-greenhouse-gas-emissions-than-any-other-g20-country-new-report-says.html.
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Explore the booming oil sands industry and its impact on the environment. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/video/179788/impact-tar-sand-extraction-focus-Canada.
  8. 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.
  9. Dyer, E. (2021). Ottawa’s promising a tax credit for carbon capture — but is the tech worth the money? [online] CBC. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/carbon-capture-storage-fossil-fuel-climate-change-2021-budget-1.6003427 [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  10. IEA. (2021). Is carbon capture too expensive? – Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/commentaries/is-carbon-capture-too-expensive.
  11. Dyer, E. (2021). Ottawa’s promising a tax credit for carbon capture — but is the tech worth the money? [online] CBC. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/carbon-capture-storage-fossil-fuel-climate-change-2021-budget-1.6003427.
  12. DePape, B. (n.d.). 3 Reasons Why Governments in Canada Should Invest in Renewables, Not Pipelines. [online] The Council of Canadians. Available at: https://canadians.org/analysis/3-reasons-why-governments-canada-should-invest-renewables-not-pipelines.
  13. Clean Energy Canada. (2019). Canada’s clean energy sector set to accelerate amid fossil fuel slowdown. [online] Available at: https://cleanenergycanada.org/canadas-clean-energy-sector-set-to-accelerate-amid-fossil-fuel-slowdown/.
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