Summary of Issues

The tar sands in northern Alberta have emerged as Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution and are also poisoning the water, polluting the air, and destroying the land. Oil companies are aggressively developing the tar sands and are striving to increase production by 150 percent between 2010 and 2035.

There are two ways that oil is extracted from the tar sands: open pit mines and in situ, or drilling, sites.

With surface mining, the area is first cleared of trees, then the muskeg is drained of water and removed and then the underlying clay, silt and gravel is removed to expose the tar sands deposit. Large shovels excavate the tar sands and load it in giant trucks that transport it to an extraction plant where heat and water separate the bitumen from the sand.

In situ extraction is performed by drilling several wells into the tar sands deposit, using steam to heat and separate the bitumen, and then pumping the bitumen to the surface. Most in situ tar sands deposits are 350 to 600 metres below the surface.

Impacts

Climate: The emissions from the development of the tar sands are 2-4 times more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil and are the fastest growing source of GHG pollution in Canada. In the last two decades, tar sands emissions have more than doubled and they are predicted to double again by 2020. There are no federal regulations to limit the amount of GHGs from the tar sands, permitting the oil companies to continue to expand production. In fact, the amount of GHGs from the tar sands is growing faster than in any other sector.

Land: The tar sands deposits cover approximately 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta, an area about the size of Florida. The oil is extracted using open pit mines and in situ, or drilling, operations. The mining region covers an area bigger than Greater Vancouver. Tar sands reserves that cannot be accessed through open pit mines are extracted using In situ methods. This technology uses steam, injected into the ground, to thin the oil and it is then pumped out.

The open pit mines have removed 686 square kilometers of boreal forest and the in situ sites are threatening wild caribou herd.

Water Contamination: Tailings are the toxic sludge created by the process of mining tar sands. The tailings are kept in large “lakes” created to store the waste indefinitely. Every eight days, the amount of tailings added to the lakes is enough to fill the Toronto Skydome or fill the Washington Monument 320 times.   The tailings lakes seep into natural water ways and contaminate the fish and other wildlife, however, the amount of seepage is not public.

Water Use: Mining operations in the tars sands are licensed to use 652 million cubic metres of water each year. This is about 7 times as much as the annual water needs of the Edmonton area. Almost none of that water is returned, threatening ecosystems such as the Athabasca River, which flows into one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas. The cumulative impacts of tar sands development on water are largely unknown due to inadequate monitoring.

Air: In addition to greenhouse gases, tar sands operations release large volumes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the environment. In fact, these chemicals are major contributors to acid rain. The Alberta emissions regulations are less stringent then the international standards and even so, they are often exceeded.