Oil Sands

The Environmental Impact of Oil Sands

The Environmental Impact of Oil Sands

The environmental impact of Canada’s oil sands can be measured in several ways. Firstly, by the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions they cause. Secondly, by the consequences of the enormous toxic tailings ponds they produce. Thirdly, through the repercussions of oil leaks from pipelines.

As with any fossil fuel, the environmental impact of oil sands is substantial. However, even compared with other ‘dirty’ energy sources, oil sands are particularly harmful.

1. Carbon emissions 

Any understanding of a fossil fuel’s environmental impact would be incomplete without considering its carbon emissions. The carbon emissions caused by oil sands industries vary depending on the type of operation and the quality of the deposit.1 There are exceptions, but overall, producing a barrel of crude from oil sands emits more greenhouse gas (GHG) than the average of all other sources.2 

Indeed, Canada’s average oil emissions were the fourth-most intensive in the world.3 Extraction and processing bitumen from oil sands generates the most pollution 2.2 times as many emissions per barrel than the average crude.4 When looking at the total extraction to end use carbon emissions, oil sands are associated with 31 per cent more emissions than the average North American crude.5

Oil sands industry figures have tried to hide this fact. An independent study found that 64 per cent higher annual GHG emissions come from surface mining operations. It also indicated 30 per cent higher overall oil sands GHG emissions compared to industry reports.6 There also appears to be little improvement, despite industry announcements to the contrary. In fact, the emission intensity of oil sands extraction increased by seven per cent between 2004 and 2015.7 This is likely to continue as producers access deeper, lower quality bitumen, farther from processing facilities.8 The release of GHGs, such as carbon, into the atmosphere is the principal driver of global warming.9 Canada’s oil sands are undoubtedly a major contributor to this effect.

2. Tailings ponds

The oil sands region in Alberta, Canada has a highly visible environmental consequence. Separating bitumen from sand and clay is highly water intensive.10 It leaves behind tailings fluid, a mixture of water, sand, clay, unrecovered bitumen and other contaminants.11 This is stored in enormous and highly toxic ponds, which are so large that they can be seen from space.12 Not only does it lead to the degradation of forests and other habitats to store the tailings fluid, but the toxic water is also leaking into the surrounding soil.13 The chemicals stored in tailings ponds are extremely harmful to animals.14

It is estimated that 785 million litres of tailings fluid leaked out of ponds in 2017.15 This represents a significant threat to wildlife along the Athabasca River.

3. Oil leaks from pipelines

The third principal way in which oil sands pose an environmental threat is through pipe leaks. Bitumen from oil sands is more corrosive than other crude, and it is subsequently more dangerous to transport.16 Alberta’s pipelines suffered 758 small scale ruptures between 1990 and 2005.17 Even small spills can be disastrous for the local wildlife. For example, four small bitumen spillages polluted water and land at a site at Cold Lake, Alberta, in 2013, killing birds, beavers, frogs and shrews and damaging habitats.18 Just short-term contact with diluted bitumen can increase the risk of illness, such as cancer and respiratory and neurological diseases.19 Oil pipes are the safest method of transporting bitumen.20 Nevertheless, any spill presents a significant environmental risk, and a large rupture could be disastrous.

Overall environmental impact of oil sands

Oil sands are one of the most carbon intensive sources of crude in the world. They produce more CO2 during extraction and process than traditional drilling and pumping methods. Combustion releases even more of this GHG. The extraction process further impacts the environment by creating toxic tailings fluid. Canada could fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools with the waste that their industry has created.21 1,600 ducks died in a tailings pond in 200822, and this poisonous water is contaminating groundwater as it leaks out.23 Finally, oil sands bitumen is more likely than other types of crude to corrode oil pipes and cause leaks. There is no doubt that this fossil fuel is a serious environmental hazard that poses a considerable danger to our planet.

The Environmental Impact of Oil Sands

Share this image on your site

Sources

  1. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/ [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  2. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/ [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  3. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/ [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  4. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=When%20looking%20at%20the%20carbon [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  5. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=When%20looking%20at%20the%20carbon [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  6. phys.org. (n.d.). Canada oil sands CO2 emissions hugely underestimated: study. [online] Available at: https://phys.org/news/2019-04-canada-oil-sands-co2-emissions.html.
  7. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=When%20looking%20at%20the%20carbon.
  8. Institute, P. (n.d.). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=When%20looking%20at%20the%20carbon.
  9. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  10. CAPP. (2019). What Are Tailings Ponds? | Environmental Impact | Alberta Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/explore/tailings-ponds/.
  11. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds - Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  12. Leahy, S. (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back/.
  13. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds - Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  14. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds - Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  15. Dene National Chief calls on gov’t to act on Alberta’s leaking tailings ponds | CBC News. (n.d.). CBC. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/tailings-alberta-dene-water-1.5846012.
  16. Oil Change International. (n.d.). [online] Available at: http://priceofoil.org/campaigns/extreme-fossil-fuels/no-extreme-fossil-fuels-tar-sands/ [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  17. energyeducation.ca. (n.d.). Pipeline - Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Pipeline.
  18. the Guardian. (2013). Alberta oil spills cause concern over Canada’s approval of tar sands project. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/29/alberta-oil-spills-tar-sands-canada.
  19. Finkel, M.L. (2018). The impact of oil sands on the environment and health. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, [online] 3, pp.52–55. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468584417300648.
  20. FracTracker Alliance. (2016). An Introduction to Oil and Gas Pipelines. [online] Available at: https://www.fractracker.org/2016/06/introduction-oil-gas-pipelines [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  21. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  22. Jones, J. (2010). Syncrude guilty in 1,600 duck deaths in toxic pond. Reuters. [online] 25 Jun. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syncrude-ducks-idUSTRE65O68520100625.
  23. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
Related posts
GeneralOil Sands

The Athabasca River, Canada

GeneralOil Sands

Canada's Oil Pipelines: Danger of Aging

BlogOil Sands

Oil Sands Companies

BlogOil Sands

Shocking Oil Sands before and after

Sign up for our Newsletter and
stay informed