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Oil Sands and The Environment

Most people I talk to in Australia have no idea about the Oil Sand reserves in Alberta. In fact, even when I moved to Calgary six years ago, I had not heard of anything but conventional oil industries in Alberta.

But it is big, really big.

While in Calgary I worked on a couple of environmental, geotechnical and materials projects for Syncrude, one of the big corporations running Oil Sand production out of Fort McMurray. I recently spoke with an engineering firm in Western Canada who is working in the Oil Sands and one of the anecdotes of Fort McMurray that was relayed to me is that the speed of growth is coming as a shock to the planners and local government as well; the recently upgraded sewerage treatment plant was already undersized on the day it opened.  Most upgrades to sewerage infrastructure are calculated with a lifespan of 10 – 20 years, not “only just, but maybe not quite” big enough.

This is the story of the world’s fastest growing industrial area, from an environmental perspective, read on after the jump…



Oil Refinery Environment Alberta’s oil sands industry faces big challenges when it comes to the environment. There are nearly $125 billion in new projects planned and the industry is expected to quadruple production in 20 years.

This has environmental groups saying the oil sands are turning Alberta into pollution capital of Canada. Dan Woynillowicz of the Pembina Institute, a non-profit environmental research group, says the oil sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. “We haven’t seen this scale of industrialization and this pace of industrial development in an ecosystem anywhere else in the world,” says Woynillowicz.

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But there are even more challenges. Companies like Syncrude and Suncor use up to five barrels of water from the Athabasca River to wash just one barrel of oil from the sand. By the time the process is over, much of that water ends up in a tailings pond. Some of the water can be recycled but a large portion of the tailings sinks to the bottom creating a wet, soupy stew of clay, oil, and chemicals that can take decades to dry out. There’s also concern about how the oil sands are affecting northern Alberta’s wildlife, forests, and wetlands. As oil sands expand many wetlands will be drained and completely removed, and according to the Pembina Institute, they can never be restored to their original condition.

Source: Canada: Alberta oil sands industry growing too fast: environmental group

With talk of CO2 geosequestration and land remediation the companies are making a big effort to reduce the effects of the scale of industry.  The image to the left shows Fort McMurray, a few hours North of Edmonton, this is a city of around 80,000 people, on the right this satellite image shows the scale of the industry.



The Athabasca Oil Sands are a large deposit of oil-rich bitumen located in northern Alberta, Canada. These oil sands consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water. The Athabasca deposit is the largest of three oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the Peace River and Cold Lake deposits. Together, these oil sand deposits cover about 141 000 km² of sparsely populated boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs).

Source: Athabasca Oil Sands. Wikipedia, 2005. http://www.answers.com/topic/athabasca-oil-sands, accessed October 04, 2006.

At the current pace of extraction, the Pembina Institute believes there is too much risk that the air, land, and water are being irreparably damaged all for money and a bit more oil.

One argument is that at least its out in the country, no one really wants to live out there anyway, the town of 80,000 would all but disappear if the oil dried up. Get it out as cleanly as possible and work on remediation techniques as you go.  It is a relatively new science with work in the area starting in the sixties, and pressure from environmental concerns rearing through the nineties and into this century.

The open-pit mining of the Athabasca oils sands destroys the boreal forest, the bogs, the rivers as well as the natural landscape. The Alberta mining industry believes that the boreal forest will eventually colonize the reclaimed lands, yet 30 years after the opening of the first open pit mine in the region no land is considered by the Alberta Government as having been “restored.”

Source: Athabasca Oil Sands. Wikipedia, 2005. http://www.answers.com/topic/athabasca-oil-sands, accessed October 04, 2006.

It’s not just Canada and the States that have a vested interest in this area, China and India are expected to invest billions of dollars in the region to improve the production and transport of oil to their countries.  No longer is it simply an environmental issue for the Canadian government, but with the addition of geopolitical players as buyers and investors, the need for tight control over environmental policy continues.

Some analysts claim that the industry needs to scale back rapidly to reduce the impacts of global warming, but seeing the money invested in the environmental wasteland, and the prospect of up to 4.8 million barrels a day of oil by 2020, things are not slowing down in the near future.  Oil is the backbone of the Western Canadian economy, and as we are moving that way as a family, I’m not looking for a massive change in the way things are done, simply because it would be a shock to the system, and would see thousands of people out of work and the flow on effects would be terrible.

Is there an answer that is sensitive to the environment and people?  I hope so, but I don’t believe it has been discovered yet.

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

4 thoughts on “Oil Sands and The Environment

  1. Some one did invent it all the car companies did have a electrical engine but the oil companies found out that this would make them go bankrupt so they bought of the idea’s from the car companies made the cars illegal and threw them all into the Arizona desert which some guy found a couple of years ago.

    Ayman mohatarems last blog post..Urban farming school

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