Tar Sands: Energy Production or Environmental Destruction?
The extraction of the Athabasca tar sands has severely impacted the physical landscapes of northeastern Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are heavy deposits of sand, clay, water and bitumen (extremely think crude oil). These sludgy oil deposits can be found in several locations around the world, including Venezuela, Russia, and the United States, but Alberta’s Athabasca deposit is the largest known reserve in the world (CAPP, 2017). Mining and converting the tar sands into usable fuel is an enormously energy- and water-intensive process that requires strip mining vast swaths of land while also creating massive amounts of toxic waste (Denchak, 2015).
Source: Louis Helbig, 2015
Tar Sands Extraction
Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands lie under about 142,000 square kilometers of land, much of which is locked deep underground, making it hard to extract (CAPP, 2017). Tar sands are known as one of the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel because of the vast economic and environmental costs that are associated with its extraction. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, there are about 171 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered from the Florida-sized deposit (CAPP, 2017).
The History of Production
The conversation about the Athabasca tar sands dates back to over 300 years, when British explorer James Knight first noticed a thick and sticky sludge around the banks of the Athabasca River (Denchak, 2015). The commercial production of oil from tar sands has been conducted for nearly five decades. However, following a rise in oil prices in the mid-1990s, the race to make a significant profit from this dirty fuel was initiated. From 2005 to 2015, tar sands oil production has increased from 1 million barrels per day to 2.4 million barrels per day (Riebeek, 2016). Today, Alberta’s tar sands are known to hold one of the largest reserves of crude oil in the world (CAPP, 2017).
Source: University of Alberta, 2012
Boreal Forest Impacts
The process of tar sand production has severely impacted massive sections of Alberta’s boreal forest. Canada’s boreal forest, located just south of the polar region’s desolate tundra, sustains nearly 1.3 billion acres of ecological diverse habitat for a wide array of species—from large carnivores like wolves, grizzly bears, and lynx, to nesting migratory birds and thousands of species of plants (Denchak, 2015). Forests have to be leveled for both open-pit and in-place mining. Tar sand pit mines can expand to over 80 meters below the surface of the landscape, while enormous trucks remove over 720,000 tons of sand and sludge every day from these mining operations (Riebeek, 2016).
Source: Zoe Cormier, 2010
Toxic Byproducts and Apocalyptic Landscapes
While identifying the direct link that tar sands production has on climate change would be challenging to conceptualize, it’s easy to visualize the apocalyptic landscapes that tar sands extraction leaves behind in northwestern Alberta. Primeval forests are stripped, ecologically rich wetlands are drained, and the landscape is replaced with desolate slopes and tailing ponds that are filled with toxic byproducts of tar sands production (Denchak, 2015). These ponds contain numerous carcinogenic toxins that often spill into the Athabasca River or leak into the groundwater (Riebeek, 2016). Within the past few decades, the tar sands extraction has devastated nearly 800 square kilometers of boreal forest and wetland habitat in Alberta (Struzik, 2016).
Source: Louis Helbig 2015
Alberta’s boreal forest is part of the ecologically diverse subarctic biome that provides a vital breeding habitat for nearly half of all bird species found in Canada and the United States (Keim, 2011). In preparation for the expansion of a tar sands mine, a forest-clearing process known as overburden removal rids the pristine landscape of all trees and local wildlife. On average, it takes nearly one ton of sand to be removed and processed in a refinery to produce one barrel of oil (Keim, 2011). Moreover, the Caterpillar 797B used to transport the sands to be refined and processed are among the largest trucks in the world.
Source: Greenpeace, 2010
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The extraction and refining of tar sands oil produces considerably more greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional oil production through drilling and pumping crude from underground deposits. In fact, scientists estimate that tar sands oil creates as much as 37 percent more emissions than conventional crude oil (Struzik, 2016). Additionally, the mining and extraction process emits toxic nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons, and other fine particulate pollutants into the atmosphere (Riebeek, 2016). Communities located near the open-pit mines have been increasingly affected with health problems. Cancer-causing chemicals from the production of the tar sands have been found in the air, water, and within local wildlife (Denchak, 2015).
Source: Greenpeace, 2010
Falling Oil Prices
Within the last couple of years, the tar sands industry has been battered by falling global oil prices. When oil was selling for around $114 per barrel in 2014, Alberta’s tar sands producers were confident that production would triple by 2035 (Struzik, 2016). Oil companies like Suncor, Syncrude, Statoil, Imperial Oil, and Royal Dutch Shell invested hundreds of billions of dollars in new technology and projects to ramp up production. However, when oil prices plummeted to $30 a barrel, oil producers found themselves well below the break-even point. Since the extraction and production of tar sands is expensive, it only makes economic sense to continue production when oil prices are high. The International Energy Agency estimates that oil prices may not rebound back to the break-even point for tar sands production until the 2020s (Struzik, 2016). The impact of halting tar sands production will save countless acres of pristine boreal forest.
Source: Louis Helbig 2015
The boreal forest is home to hundreds of indigenous First Nations communities and a vast number of plant and animal species (Denchak, 2015). The tar sands industry has dramatically disrupted Alberta’s pristine landscapes and natural ecosystems. The oil companies have entered into contracts that require them to restore the land after they have finished extracting tar sands (Riebeek, 2016). However, this process is easier said than done. Drained wetlands are not easy to refill, while forest communities that evolved for thousands of years can’t be magically replanted. Out of the 800 square kilometers mined so far, only about one square kilometer has been certified as reclaimed (Keim, 2011).
Source: Resolute Forest Products, 2014
CAPP. (2017). “What are Oil Sands?” Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. N.p.,
Denchak, Melissa. (2015). “The Dirty Fight Over Canadian Tar Sands Oil.” NRDC. N.p.,
Keim, Brandon. (2017). “The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta’s Oil Sands.” Wired. Conde Nast.
Riebeek, Holli. (2016). “World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands: Feature Articles.” NASA.
Struzik, Ed. (2016). “Once Unstoppable, Tar Sands Now Battered from All Sides.” Yale E360. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.