Once ignored because of high extraction costs, the oil sands (also known as tar of Canada are generating an economic boom for the nation.. and an environmental disaster.
The oil sands of Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake are said to contain a massive amount of crude; around the 170 billion barrel mark and covering an area the size of Florida.
This is approximately 17 times the amount said to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s reserve and ranks it as the world’s biggest source behind Saudi Arabia. Much of the Canada oil sands crude is destined for the USA market.
Aside from all the usual environmental problems associated with oil production, to extract crude from the sand requires a massive amount of energy and resources – far more than traditional oil drilling.
Natural gas is used to create the heat necessary to separate the oil from the sand; which is in a bitumen form and then requires a great deal of further refining. It takes two to four tons of landscape to be dug up to extract a single barrel of oil. Between two to 4 barrels of water are also needed to produce one barrel of crude.
The amount of emissions generated in the production of that barrel is equivalent to what several cars produce in a day – then there’s the emissions created when that oil winds up being utilized as an end product. Thanks largely to the oil sands, Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions are set to double within a decade.
The sand is mined initially using strip mining practices, which is very damaging in itself, but as those deposits are depleted, the equipment needs to go deeper and more energy is needed to be used to produce the same amount of oil. One pit is reported to be three miles wide and a couple of hundred feet deep.
Aside from the damage to the immediate environment, there’s dangers to surrounding areas and increased cancer rates have been noted in some settlements in close proximity to the mining operations.
While the companies involved are bound by law to restore the landscape once they are done with mining it, much of what I’ve read states this reparation work hasn’t been done, or at best, poorly done. I’ve taken a peek via Google Earth at these oil sands locations; it’s such a shame, they look like they were beautiful places once.
National Geographic has a very interesting article on tar sands oil extraction and its impact on local communities and the environment – well worth a read.