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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 substance1. These tar sands are seen as a gold mine for bitumen, but the extraction process is incredibly harmful to the planet.Experts criticise the extensive fresh water consumption and associated air pollution that comes with sands operations, and the destruction of green space2.

The role of Canada

Despite Canada having an extensive network of hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants providing the majority of its power, it has been slow to adopt other forms of low-carbon energy and cut its transport emissions. Oil and gas production is Canada’s largest emitting sector3, and oil sands operations are a major component. The development of oil sands is a key booster of Alberta’s and Canada’s economy, and Canada is now the world’s third largest reserve of oil, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela4

Alberta’s oil sands industry is the world’s largest industrial project, and has proved highly contentious among environmental and Indigenous groups. There are four oil refineries in total in Alberta, with approximately 2.8 million barrels per day of synthetic oil made there5. Suncor Energy (formerly the Great Canadian Oil Sands) is the oldest commercial-scale company in the Canadian tar sands, and it produces 831,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day alone6.

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 world7. 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 process8.

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 acres9.1 of the forest since the year 2000. Alberta is responsible for 5.5%9.2 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 global oil 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 204010.

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 production are haunting – and they speak volumes for the impact on our planet.

References

  1. Herbert, Abraham. Asphalts and Allied Substances. Published 1918. 
  2. Canada’s Changing Climate Report 2019. Government of Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2020/06/CCCR_FULLREPORT-EN-FINAL.pdf. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  3. Canada’s Oil & Gas Challenge. Stand.earth. https://www.stand.earth/sites/default/files/Canadas_Oil%2BGas_Challenge.pdf. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  4. Canada’s Energy Mix. CAPP. https://www.capp.ca/energy/canadas-energy-mix/. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  5. Upgraders and Refineries. Government of Alberta. https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/98c15cad-c5d9-4d96-b39c-423210a3050c/resource/7367e817-4fea-4744-a80c-0a81ce5fc907/download/factsheet-upgraders-and-refineries.pdf. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  6. Suncor Energy provides fourth quarter 2018 operations update. Suncor. https://www.suncor.com/en-CA/Newsroom/News-Releases/1681073. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  7. Canada’s Changing Climate Report 2019. Government of Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2020/06/CCCR_FULLREPORT-EN-FINAL.pdf. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  8. World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/Athabasca. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  9. Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/07/tar-sands-threaten-world-s-largest-boreal-forest. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
  10. Canada Oil-Sands Plan Collapses Over Politics and Economics. Canada Oil Sands. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/business/energy-environment/frontier-oil-sands-canada.html. Published February 24, 2020. Accessed November 2, 2020. 
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