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Oil Sands

Oil Sands Companies

Oil sands are a type of petroleum deposit, most of which are located in Alberta, Canada. Oil sands companies have secured Canada’s place in the global oil market; however, there has been much criticism for this method of extraction, as it is extremely damaging to the environment.

Example of a Suncor oil extraction site. Suncor is the largest of the oil sands companies.
Suncor oil extraction site.

Environmental Concerns

The target of oil sands reserves is bitumen, a dense form of crude oil which covers the sand. Extracting this bitumen from oil sands accounts for 8.5% of Canada’s total emissions, which is a considerable amount to consider when looking at reducing Canada’s emissions.

A barrel of oil emits 80% of its greenhouse gases during combustion by the individual using the oil. So, to make the largest impact, the government could provide the end user with more sustainable Canadian natural resources.

Oil Sands Production

The Alberta oil sands contributes to approximately 64% of Canadian oil exports, and has secured itself as a major contributor to Canada’s economy. This is equivalent to producing 2.9 million barrels per day, and over 1 billion barrels per year. Just five oil companies in Canada account for 82% of this production. The largest contributor is Suncor Energy, who’s carbon emissions have been increasing by around 10% per year.

Other large companies like Cenovus Energy and Athabasca Oil, have been scaling back projects this year due to the coronavirus outbreak. This is likely to take a toll on many oil companies, and it is predicted that Canadian oil stocks will continue to decline over the coming months. In fact, recent news shows oil prices have actually turned negative.

Future Projects

Further expansions to oil sands infrastructure continue to attract attention. Major oil pipelines for carrying crude oil from Canada’s tar sands region have been called into question over environmental concerns. The impact that a leak could have on the lakes that it would pass through would be disastrous for the ecosystem. This questioning shows that there is still hope for the scaling back of these oil and gas industries.

Oil sands companies account for a large amount of the oil used in our everyday lives. They are also a large source of carbon, and oil pipe leaks can damage huge areas of environmental importance. Therefore, the move away from these companies towards the use of sustainable natural resources is essential to protect the environment.

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Shocking Oil Sands before and after

What are Oil Sands?

Oil sands are a natural mixture of sand, water, clay and a type of oil called bitumen. Due to their dark, sticky appearance, they’re often called “tar sands” – although it’s actually the bitumen that forms the thick, tar-like substance. These tar sands are seen as a gold mine for bitumen, but the extraction process is incredibly harmful to the planet. Experts criticise the water and air pollution that comes with sands operations, and the destruction of green space.

The role of Canada

Tar sands are located all over the world, but it’s Canada who have become the talking point for oil sands exploitation. The development of oil sands is a key booster of Alberta’s and Canada’s economy. Notably, Canadian oil sands deposits are some of the largest deposit sites of crude oil on the planet.

Alberta’s oil sand industry is booming in particular. There are four oil refineries in total in Alberta, with approximately 2.8 million barrels per day of synthetic oil made there. Suncor Energy Incorporated, the oldest mining company in the Canadian tar sands, produces 831,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day alone.

The shocking effects

Canada’s oil extraction process is extremely destructive to the environment. As much so, even, that according to a new government report1, Canada is warming twice as fast than the rest of the world. The Athabasca deposit is the most destructive deposit in Canada, situated north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It’s also the most developed, using the most technologically advanced production processes.

oil sands before and after
Athabasca, before and after tar sands exploitation.
Photographer Unknown.

One of the world’s largest reserves of oil is under Canada’s boreal forest. There’s no actual oil, per se, to be extracted in these sites. It’s the sand itself that’s mined, and bitumen coats the grains of sand. Extracting this bitumen involves intense labouring. As a result, much of the forest is destroyed in the process.

boreal forest
Part of the boreal forest has been stripped away to reveal the bitumen-laced ground
Photo by Ian Willms

The boreal forest is gravely under threat. Industrial development and forest fires have destroyed almost two million acres of the forest since the year 2000. Alberta is responsible for 5.5% of this total land area, owing to the intensive mining operations.

Unfortunately, Canada’s Athabasca River hasn’t escaped unscathed either. The tailings ponds in Alberta’s tar sands region contain a toxic mixture of heavy metals and hydrocarbons. These toxins are prone to leaking into the Athabasca River. Shockingly, Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds are also so big that they can be seen from space.

Fort McMurray
A tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands development, near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by Todd Korol

The future of Oil Sands

The International Energy Agency states that growth will begin to slow considerably in 2025, which is hopeful. Their research suggests that demand could fall to 67 million barrels of oil a day in 2040.

However, sadly, there is no reversing the colossal damage that mining has already caused. Where tar sands exploitation grows, acres of green land become lost, and millions of tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. The before and after photographs of oil sands are haunting – and they speak volumes for the impact on our planet.


  1. Canada’s ChangingClimate Report, 2019
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Key things you should know about these new oil sands projects

Current fossil fuel production levels are not in line with goals outlined by the IPCC, according to research. One of the keys to this is the role of new oil sands projects. They sit uneasily with 1.5 degrees goals1 widely agreed upon at COP summit meetings.

The extraction of oil sand is one of the lesser-known fossil fuel industries, but nonetheless it is still controversial. It results in the production of oil from the extraction of reserves.

Where are the proposed new oil sands projects?

Frontier mine, Alberta Canada. The site is a staggering 292 square kilometers covering 24,000-hectares2. Its capabilities mean it could produce 260,000 barrels of bitumen each day at its peak. As a result, potential development would make it one of the largest ever built in Alberta.

Canada has long had a history of oil production. The country is the fourth-largest producer and exporter of oil in the world. This makes its oil reserves an economic incentive with 96% of Canada’s proven oil located in the oil sands3. However, any new plans would be another step in the wrong direction for the environment.

Why are the new oil sands projects controversial?

Firstly, the environmental impact of the oil sand industry is huge. The Frontier mine oil sand project would be entirely incompatible with climate change goals. Research suggests it would produce 6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year until 20674. This is a gargantuan amount. Nevertheless, it is not dissimilar to many other previous Canadian oil sands projects in its environmental impact.

Secondly, a vast amount of energy is needed to create space for the mine as 3,000 hectares of old-growth forest would need to be cut down5. As a carbon sink, this has a further impact on climate change.

What are current plans?

Teck Resources Ltd. are pulling its application for a new oil sands project in Alberta6. This has removed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from making a critical decision on the future of Alberta. Should it have remained, Trudeau would need to consider Canada’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

What else do I need to know?

Canada has had a strong history with oil sand projects due to its rich reserves. However, the Frontier mine project does not appear to have a long lifetime at just 41 years7, as future oil demand remains in question. This perhaps contributed to Teck Resources Ltd.’s own uncertainty about the economic sense of the project, alongside more global concerns.


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