Everything You Need to Know About the Environmental and Social Impact of the Alberta Oil Sands - and What You Can Do About It

What are tar sands?

The Alberta oil sands are one of the largest remaining oil reserves on the planet.

Unlike conventional oil deposits which feature liquid oil captured in porous rock, the oil sands are sand formations embedded with a thick, sticky oil called bitumen.

How are oil sand extracted?

Conventional oil is able to flow in porous rock and be pumped out as a liquid. Bitumen, on the other hand, must be extracted from the sand by industrial processes involving a great deal of heat and pressure.

This requires a large amount of energy, mostly natural gas, which is why the oil sands generate a far higher level of carbon emissions than conventional oil fields. Why are oil sands bad? In short, it takes a lot of energy resources to extract the oil making the oil sands the lowest grade large oil resource currently in production.

The Oil Sands – Another Example of Reckless Exploitation in Canada

The high cost of production and the enormous legacy costs of cleanup makes the oil sands a large money-loser in the long run for Alberta and Canada. High emissions and large tailing ponds make the oil sands an environmental negative from the start.

The oil sands are a seductively large and accessible resource. In some places, it is possible to dig the oil-laden sand out with a shovel. But it has very high processing and legacy costs, which have made it a money-loser over the past 20 years given the fluctuating price of oil. Not only do the Alberta oil sands have a negative environmental impact – they don’t make sense economically.

The oil sands industry may turn a lot of dollars but is likely to continue losing money in a world determined to move away from fossil fuels. On-going small scale oil sands production in Alberta may be a strategic option for Canada, but large scale expansion is throwing good money after bad – without even beginning to count the environmental impact.

What is EROI?

EROI stands for Energy Returned on Energy Invested. In simple terms, this has to do with the amount of energy that something yields compared to the amount of energy it takes to extract it. It is a much more comprehensive metric than a measurement in dollars. See our EROI video which explains this critical metric. 

Key Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands & Oil Production

In the Alberta Oil Sands:

  • It takes the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to extract and produce four barrels of oil for an EROI of 4:1. (EROI – Energy Returned for Energy Invested)
  • In oil’s glory days, oil from the rich virgin Middle East and Texas fields returned 100 barrels for every one input – a staggering EROI of 100:1. But technology has been unable to keep pace with resource depletion and the world average EROI continues to decline.
  • Currently, the world average conventional oil field yields 17 barrels of oil for every barrel equivalent of energy consumed in production. (EROI of 17:1) – in stark comparison once again to the very low 4:1 ratio of the Alberta oil sands
  • The amount of bitumen contained in a cubic metre of the oil sands is about 1 barrel.
  • Conventional oil fields yield up to 20 percent of the oil in the ground.
  • Up to 50-60 percent of bitumen in the oil sands can be recovered by heating the sand in place and draining it off once it is liquefied. This is called the in-situ process.
  • In Alberta, the oil sands mining process recovers more than 90 percent of the bitumen in a much more complex process that involves digging up and transporting the sand to a processing facility, costing even more time, chemicals and resources

Before committing so heavily to an undertaking like the oil sands, public policymakers should have put aside their fascination with dollars and given the project a full lifecycle biophysical economics review. The environmental and economic impact of the oil sands is just too critical to ignore.

The basics through this real physical world lens would have flagged the very low and uncompetitive EROI relative to all world producers, the landlocked geography of the resource, the high emissions in production and the massive cleanup costs.

The Alberta oil sands have a direct environmental and economic impact. Canada’s resource development policy should be based on full lifecycle social, environmental and economic costs and benefits, rather than on the ability of powerful interests to mould public policy through large media advertising budgets and political donations.

Alberta Oil Sands - 5 strikes and you’re out!

The Oil Sands have:

  1. A World low EROI
  2. High emissions
  3. Extreme legacy costs to be borne by taxpayers
  4. High cost well above foreseeable oil price levels
  5. Financially destabilizing for Alberta and Canada