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Alberta Oil Sands Production: Dirty Oil?

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Oil sand wastewater tailings total 130 km2 and can be viewed from space with the naked eye. (Photo: L. Caspers)
Oil sand wastewater tailings total 130 km2 and can be viewed from space with the naked eye. (Photo: L. Caspers)


  • Planned sit-in September 26 in Ottawa to protest Alberta oil sands
  • Oil sand mining produces 3 times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production
  • Oil sand production expected to increase to 3.5 million barrels per day by 2020

Alberta’s oil sands and their impact on the environment will be the central issue in a sit-in scheduled for September 26 in Ottawa.

Key organizers Greenpeace Canada, the Council of Canadians, and the Indigenous Environmental Network are hoping for an event similar in impact to a recent Washington, D.C., protest. In Washington, dozens, including actress Margot Kidder, were arrested for protesting a TransCanadaCorp pipeline project transporting crude oil from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma markets, thus expanding its current line to Houston, Texas.

With their high-carbon dioxide output, oil sands have become increasingly controversial in the last few years, prompting Alberta’s then-premier Peter Lougheed to call for a freezing of oil sand production in 2006, and US mayors to pass a resolution discouraging the use of oil sands in American cities in 2008. The resolution stated that the greater amount of energy needed to extract bitumen from sand, and convert the bitumen to crude oil, led to three times more greenhouse gases than from conventional oil production.

Further, according to Alberta Energy, over 80% of Alberta oil sands can only be mined using the well-based in-situ (“in place”) process, which uses twice the natural gas of conventional oil production to heat and pump steam that will release the oil sands to the top of the well.

Search for Solutions

Alberta’s oil sands produce over 1.3 million barrels of crude oil per day, which has become known as “dirty oil” due to the 1.8 billion of liters of toxic wastewater it also produces on a daily basis. This wastewater, called tailings, is left after bitumen is separated from the oil sands.

Tailings total 130 square kilometers and are so large they can be viewed from space with the naked eye. Some pilot projects are in place to reduce the negative impact of tailings, with Northern Alberta crude oil company Syncrude embarking on a $60 million contract with waste management company Newalta to create and run a plant processing waste from its tailings ponds.

In 2007, Alberta oil sand operations were mandated to decrease carbon intensity from 2003-2005 levels by 12%. However, by 2020, the industry plans to increase oil sand production to 3.5 million barrels per day, tripling its 2008 output. Such rapid expansion would push Alberta’s contribution to Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions up to over 15% from its present 5%.

With an increase in total emissions inevitable as the industry expands, the mandate will allow for a decrease in emission production per barrel of oil, slowing emission growth but not reducing emissions.

At present, oil sand companies are testing products that would draw on sources other than natural gas, including deep geothermal heat, which may take a decade to perfect.

Nonetheless, if oil sands companies cannot meet set carbon intensity targets, then they will have to pay into Alberta’s technology fund, which hopes to develop technologies to reduce emissions, including the Carbon Capture and Sequestration project, a CO2 storage system backed by Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers. Like tailings management systems, such technologies are still in the pilot project stages.

Key Facts – Oil Sands in Alberta (source: CBC)

  • The energy sector accounts for 30% of Alberta’s profits, with over 15% of Albertans working in it directly or indirectly.
  • Alberta’s oil sands produce 0.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers).
  • Alberta’s oil sands contribute to 12% of the province’s total greenhouse emissions, and approximately 5% of the nation’s emissions.
  • The oil sands lie beneath almost 141,000 km2 of land in Northern Alberta, an area larger than that of Florida state by over 45,000 km2.

By Christelle Agboka for
Christelle Agboka is a freelance journalist based in Kingston, Ontario, who covers business and economy news.

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