What Are Oil Sands And Why Are They So Dangerous?

what are oil sands?

Canada has positioned itself as a global leader in tackling climate change.‌1 But it also has a dirty secret that undermines that reputation – its highly polluting oil sands industry.2 In brief, this is what you need to know about oil sands.

What are oil sands?

‘Oil sands’ is the name given to Canada’s fossil fuel industry based around the Alberta province region. They are given that name because of how the product is found in the ground and its extraction method. The oil naturally occurs as a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen. Companies pump the mixture out of the ground using an energy-intensive method and process it to extract the bitumen.3 The process makes it among the most expensive oil per barrel in the world.4

What are tar sands and oil shales?

Tar sands are the same as oil sands. Oil sands are what they are called in Canada, and the term is used to refer to the industry around Alberta. In the mid-1990s, the Canadian government and oil industry settled on using the term oil sands. However, in the rest of the world, environmentalists and commentators frequently use tar sands to refer to the industry.5

Oil shale is the name given to oil derived from rock that contains a compound called kerogen. Companies derive the oil by breaking down the rocks and processing the remains further. But it’s worth noting that oil shale is different to shale oil. The latter is oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”.6

Why is Alberta’s oil industry so dangerous?

Alberta’s oil industry is primarily based in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, surrounding the Athabasca River basin. It covers a combined area of 142,000 square kilometres in Canada’s pristine boreal forest, which contains a rich diversity of wildlife and trees.7

Critics say that the oil industry and forest fires have cleared or degraded almost two million acres of the forest over the last two decades.8 It is estimated that Alberta’s oil reserves may be as high as 166 billion barrels, which is more than the total oil found in both Iran and Nigeria.9

How are oil sands used?

Alberta’s oil sands industry produces two kinds of oil: a heavily diluted bitumen product, usually shortened to “dilbit”, or a type of light synthetic crude oil. The industry exports around three million barrels of bitumen product per day to the US for processing. The processed product can then be converted into a variety of oil uses depending on demand, from jet fuel to plastics.10

What Are Oil Sands


  1. mahamabedi1 (2019). Canada positioned itself as a world leader on climate change — is it? [online] Global News. Available at:
  2. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at:
  3. Hong, P.K.A., Cha, Z., Zhao, X., Cheng, C.-J. and Duyvesteyn, W. (2013). Extraction of bitumen from oil sands with hot water and pressure cycles. Fuel Processing Technology, [online] 106, pp.460–467. Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  4. Tar-sands economics don’t add up (2019). Tar-sands economics don’t add up. [online] Star Tribune. Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  5. (2018). Oil sands – Energy Education. [online] Available at:
  6. Anon, (n.d.). Oil Shale vs. Shale Oil: What’s The Difference? – Utah Geological Survey. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  7. (2011). World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. [online] Available at:
  8. World Resources Institute. (2018). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. [online] Available at:
  9. (2014). Oil Resources | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Available at:
  10. Products from the Oil Sands: Dilbit, Synbit & Synthetic Crude Explained | Oil Sands Magazine (2016). Oil Sands Magazine. [online] Oil Sands Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2019].
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