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Thematic Focus: Resource Efficiency, Ecosystem Management, and Climate Change

Athabasca Oil Sands, Require Massive Investments and Energy and Produce Massive Amounts of Oil and CO2 — Alberta, Canada

Why is this issue important?

The Athabasca Oil Sands region of Alberta, Canada forms the second-largest deposit of recoverable oil in the world after Saudi Arabia (Whitfield and others 2010). The energy and environmental costs of extracting oil from oil sands have made their development very controversial. The oil sands industry burns about 22.5 million m3 of natural gas daily to extract bitumen (Tenenbaum 2009). This burning is the main source of the over 8 000 tonnes of CO2 per year emitted by the oil sands industry and accounts for much of Canada's growing CO2 emissions (Humphries 2008). In addition, the oil sands mines release a significant amount of SO2 and other atmospheric pollutants (Williams 2010). Water is used in oil sands extraction to help separate the bitumen from the oil sands. The industry already diverts around 150 million m3 of water from the Athabasca River and the Canadian government has approved diversions of more than twice that volume, raising concerns about inadequate flow (Humphries 2008). Waste-water disposal from the production process goes into large tailing ponds and poses a threat to groundwater and surface water quality, wildlife and soils if leakage occurs (Humphries 2008).

Hotspot Image Viewer: 1989 and 2009



Compare different satellite images for this Hotspot by selecting different "Left" and "Right" images.

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While commercial production began around Fort McMurray, Alberta in 1967, the cost of recovering the bitumen from the oil-sands deposits was expensive and the oil was of low quality (Williams 2010). Bitumen is very heavy, low-quality oil, which is too viscous to pump from the ground. It makes up only 3 to 18 per cent of the oil sands formations, which must be strip-mined (Williams 2010). The bitumen is then extracted using hot water and further refined to make conventional petroleum products. As prices for crude oil rise, more of the roughly 140 000 km2 of oil-sands deposits become cost effective to mine. Oil sands production was approaching half of all Canadian oil production in 2008 (Humphries 2008). Ninety-nine per cent of Canada's oil exports go to the United States.

Athabasca Mine Zoomed

Figure 3: The area and thickness of bitumen deposits lying under the Canadian boreal forest are overlain with the leases granted to several international oil developers. Leases already cover most of the viable deposits.

Athabasca Mine

In September of 2010 Canada's Environment Minister appointed a panel of leading scientists chaired by former UNEP executive director Liz Dowdeswell. They were asked to evaluate the state of environmental monitoring in the Athabasca region. Their report found that while there were many monitoring programs and considerable academic research that there was "no evidence of science leadership to ensure that monitoring and research activities" were coordinated and integrated (EC 2010).

What are the findings and implications?

Rising oil prices and increasing interest in finding energy sources closer to home for the world's largest oil consumer, the United States, have led to enormous investments in the Athabasca Oil Sands — an estimated US$40 billion in 2010 alone (CAPP n.d., Humphries 2008). The 1989 satellite image shows the footprint of oil sands mining in the Fort McMurray area just as the Canadian Government was beginning to encourage the industry's expansion. The bright areas cut into the boreal forest and muskeg wetlands are mining pits, tailings ponds, production facilities and roads. The 2009 image shows the dramatic growth in active operations spanning over 55 km from north-to-south.

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