In the far northern region of the Canadian province of Alberta, under muskeg and boreal forest, sits a vast seam of bituminous sand. The Athabasca deposit is thought to contain up to 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, equal to the entire world’s reserves of conventional oil, with about 10% of that recoverable using available technology. This makes Canada the holder of the second-largest available reserves of oil in the world, after Saudi Arabia.
While the government of Alberta values the oil sands and the money they bring to provincial coffers, the real price of this brand of unconventional oil extraction is far higher than anyone wants to admit.
The Suncor oil sands project is the single largest strip mine in the world. Like all strip mines, the initial work consists of removing the top layer of soil. In this case, it’s the muskeg and boreal forest, and organic material that have taken decades, or even centuries, to accumulate in this land of short growing seasons and long, cold winters. Once the top layer, called the overburden, has been removed, that’s where they get into the working of removing the ultraheavy-oil-filled sand.
Under federal and provincial regulations, and in agreement with the leases these oil corporations sign with the provincial government, the land is supposed to be returned, as close as possible, to its original state. This has yet to happen, for any of the lands strip-mined since the oil sands went into operation in 1968. The corporations and the province do make some claims that some of the land has been restored, but it has been restored to agricultural use, as pasture, rather than starting it back down the road to being the wilderness and wildlife habitat it once was. So far, only one Reclamation Certificate has been issued by the Alberta Government, for one square kilometer site known as Gateway Hill. That’s one kilometre out of the 420 square kilometers that have been disturbed by mining operations.
The mining process itself disrupts and destroys wildlife habitat, but even after the earth has been stripped bare of anything considered to be valuable, even then, the habitat does not return. Often the ground is left untended, and unreclaimed, full of the toxic leavings of the oil sands and the equipment used to mine it and process it.
By June 1, 2009, nearly 69,000 hectares of boreal forest and muskeg had been cleared for oil sands surface mining. This area contained the equivalent of 77 million tons of CO2, or a significant fraction of what the state of California generates every year.
Along with the loss of this reservoir of biocarbon, and the inability of the cleared territory to further sequester carbon for the foreseeable future, the extraction and processing of the oil sands generates more than 40 million tons of CO2 every year, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in all of Canada. That amounts to 5% of Canada’s total emissions, or 0.1% of the world’s total.
The process of extracting and processing the oil uses about 3.5 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced, and despite recycling, most of that water ends up in tailing ponds. So far, there are over 50 square kilometers of these oily ponds, sitting astride a major migratory bird route. In April of 2008, 500 ducks found out the hard way that the tailing ponds were toxic quagmires.
The Alberta Oil Sands are a major source of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, and revenue. However, the massive costs, both real and environmental, of these projects should be an incentive to work on alternative energy. Perhaps the Alberta provincial government, largely without a plan, should consider investing its oil and gas revenues on the real future, and look into advancing alternative fuels and energy sources. It would at least give the politicians something to do.