Oil Sands, Tar Sands & Tar Pits may lead to Energy Independence for Canada & North America, but at what cost?
Canada's massive oil sands deposits are creating tremendous economic wealth, but our research shows that it comes at a high environmental cost.
Oil sands—also called tar sands, tar pits, or bituminous sands—are deposits of ultra-heavy crude oil below the ground.
Picture this: you’re a twenty-something male, out of work, and willing to move far to find some. You take a job with an oil sands joint venture called Syncrude and end up driving a bulldozer in Fort McMurray, Alberta (that’s Canada, in case you got lost on the way).
What’s in Fort McMurray? Not so much above the ground level. You took this job out in the Canadian wilderness in order to tap into a few of the billions of dollars being spent extracting petroleum from the Athabasca oil sands.
Fort McMurray has boomed since mining began. Other people are your only surroundings, though, now that the trees are clear cut and the elk, moose, and deer have evacuated the now peat-covered barren tundra that waits for a promised replanting to follow.
At Fort McMurray you are working at just one of Canada’s three major oil sands deposits. All three lie beneath vast boreal forests in northern Alberta, whose watersheds flow into the Hudson Bay and Arctic ocean.
Oil sands—also called tar sands, tar pits, or bituminous sands—are deposits of ultra-heavy crude oil below the ground. Bitumen, the heavy crude oil in the sand, comprises only about 10-15% of the material extracted.
Such a small yield made oil sands unprofitable until the last few decades. New in situ methods (using heat to extract oil sands from below the surface) and declining reserves of traditional petroleum reserves have recently rendered oil sands profitable. It has meant a boom for the Canadian economy through jobs like those in Fort McMurray. However, the effects of oil sands exploration on water quality and the feasibility of revitalizing a leveled demolished forest remain in question.
The Canadian government and populace first supported excavation of the oil sands as early as the 1960s as a pathway to energy independence. As of 2008, the Alberta government still stood by their claim that oil sands mining operations did not contaminate any water in the province.
Only now are scientists, doctors, and government officials discovering that perhaps the oil sands prospect is not as peachy as they first thought. The Canadian government is now investigating circumstances like deformed fish in Lake Athabasca, high cancer rates in towns downstream of the mining, thousands of dead ducks in tailings ponds, and the difficulty of replanting the 148,480 acres of forest that have already been entirely cleared.
These environmental problems and economic successes are far from America and her watersheds. Yet, destruction from oil sands excavation impacts Americans both directly and indirectly.
Destruction from mining oil sands parallels environmental hazards caused by mountain-top removal mining in the Appalachians, as well as water pollution caused in mineral mining and oil or gas drilling. In addition, there are untapped tar sands and oil sands in the U.S., so Canadian decisions could have specific implications for our policies.
The U.S. is also a primary market for the crude oil mined from the Alberta tar sands and oil sands, and our appetite for crude oil fodders this industry. Both the Sierra Club and industry groups are taking the Department of Defense to court regarding U.S. climate policies that currently allow the importation of Canadian oil sands petroleum.
Even if no young Americans are driving to the Canadian North Country to work in isolated Fort McMurray, Americans might want to pay attention to the press that oil sands receive in Canada.
Canada, like the U.S., values its energy independence and must also grapple with the environmental consequences of large-scale petroleum extraction at home. The American government must follow Canadian oil sands development so that the U.S. can model future petroleum excavations in a safer, more productive manner.