Oil Sands: The Costs of Alberta's "Black Gold"

Oil Drums During a June 28 visit to Washington, D.C., Ralph Klein, the premier of Canada’s western province of Alberta, spoke about the vast energy potential in his region and reassured U.S. government officials that Alberta’s oil reserves are secure. The following day, two leading North American environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Canada’s Pembina Institute, hosted a panel discussion in Washington to provide what they considered to be a more complete picture of Albertan oil development. Panelists spoke about the environmental, social, and cultural costs of extracting the fossil resource, which occurs in the region primarily in the form of tar-like “oil sands.”

According to the Oil and Gas Journal, Canada’s 179 billion barrels of oil reserves rank it second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum resources. Although Albertan oil sands extraction was not officially recognized as economically viable until 2003, production in the province more than doubled between 1995 and 2004, to 1.1 million barrels a day. This growth has rocketed Alberta’s oil resources to international acclaim, earning the oil sands the nickname of “black gold.” The region is predicted to produce five million or more barrels per day by 2030.

Oil sands were historically known as “tar sands” because the oil occurs naturally in a tar-like form mixed with sand. “Fundamentally, it’s a different type of oil” than that found in conventional oil sources, explains Dan Woynillowicz of the Pembina Institute. But this also makes it more difficult—and possibly more environmentally damaging—to extract and produce, he notes. Woynillowicz offers a simplistic but effective image of the oil sands purification process: “Get a bucket of tar that you use to patch your roof, go out to the sand box, [and] dump it in there,” he suggests. Then “pour…hot water in, mix it, and try to get that tar to separate from the sand as much as you can.”

The water-based extraction process uses enormous water inputs, requiring between two and four barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, according to Woynillowicz. The oil sands industry also uses large quantities of energy and produces massive amounts of waste water, known as “tailings.” Already, two toxic tailings dumps from Canadian oil sands mines are said to be visible from space with the naked eye.

The United States, as the world’s largest oil consumer at 20–23 million barrels a day, has encouraged the growth of oil sands development in neighboring Canada. The rapid development of the industry has given Alberta the dubious distinction of being the single fastest source of growth in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. Marlo Raynolds of the Pembina Institute estimates that the area has probably seen a tripling of greenhouse gas emissions in the past decade.

George Poitras, a former chief of Alberta’s Mikisew Cree Nation, is also concerned about the effects of increased oil development in a region his people have inhabited for some 12,000 years. While his tribe is not averse to resource extraction, and in fact enjoys royalties from the oil sands projects taking place, Poitras is a strong supporter of more environmentally sensitive practices. Tribal elders are worried by changes they have seen in the local environment, he explains, including worsening water quality and recession along the Athabasca River. Many fish now show deformities and blisters, and bird and caribou migration patterns in the region have changed.

Even Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and the star of the new film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” thinks developing Canada’s oil sands is a bad idea. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Gore noted that, “For every barrel of oil they extract there, they have to use enough natural gas to heat a family's home for four days. And they have to tear up four tons of landscape, all for one barrel of oil. It is truly nuts.”

To offer a viable alternative to oil sands development, the Canadian environmental community is formulating a framework for a new national energy strategy. Proposed solutions for offsetting the negative effects of fossil fuel extraction include carbon capture and sequestration, improved energy efficiency, and greater use of renewable energy sources. In addition, environmentalists hope to boost consumer awareness of the upstream impacts of oil use. For more information, visit www.oilsandswatch.org.


This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.