BlogOil Sands

Shocking Oil Sands before and after

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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