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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.

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

What is the most abundant fossil fuel?

Despite the clear need for us to transition to green energy, fossil fuels still dominate our energy markets. But what is our planet’s most abundant fossil fuel?

The Most Abundant Fossil Fuel Crown Goes to…Coal

Nations like Saudi Arabia have major oil fields, while Russia leads the pack on proven natural gas resources.

But, taking the planet as a whole, the most abundant fossil fuel is coal.

The United States has the largest coal sources of any nation. States like Wyoming and Virginia have made coal mining a way of life. In fact, the United States government boasts its coal reserves total one quarter of the world’s proven coal sources.

To put that another way, the United States has more coal than the rest of the world has available oil reserves.

There’s a big problem though. For the past few years the United States government has tried to revive its coal industry, but it hasn’t worked.

For one thing, the American public doesn’t want more coal mining operations. Another issue is that natural gas and other fossil fuels are out-competing coal. The growing green energy sector is also applying pressure.

So, it’s little wonder that the global coal market has been in free-fall. Despite the United States seeing a brief surge in coal export demand around 2017, this downward spiral does not look set to end.

Fossil Fuels Infrastructure: An Increasingly Risky Bet

Coal is notorious for being a “dirty” fossil fuel, and with good reason.

The mining process is an ugly one that carves up massive amounts of earth and can also change water courses. Acid mine drainage is also an environmental concern that requires long-term management.

Now, the United States has started to transition to natural gas production. Nations like the UK through to Japan are also following. They bill this as a “clean” energy alternative.

However, environmental groups say while natural gas might seem attractive, it is anything but environmentally friendly and has several of the same problems as coal.

Many gas drilling sites cannot be the same as the sites we have used for oil and coal extraction. This means we are having to clear yet more new land and build new infrastructure to feed our fossil fuel habit.

What’s more, some gas extraction processes use a lot of water. With that comes the risk of water contamination. This happened in Wyoming where research shows fracking led to ground water contamination.

Environmentalists worry that investment in natural gas infrastructure now will only prolong fossil fuel use in the future, and we can’t afford that.

If we are to have any hope of achieving our climate change related targets, scientists are clear that fossil fuels cannot be part of our long term strategy.

It is time to leave fossil fuels alone, whether that is coal, oil or natural gas, and whether they are abundant energy sources or not.