What is the problem with Alberta sands?

What is the problem with Alberta Sands

It is known as Canada’s “dirty oil” but what is the actual problem with Alberta sands1? Oil sands projects extract and transport oil in a hugely environmentally detrimental way which is unmatched across the world. In this article we will explore the specific problems that subsequently mark Alberta sands as an environmental disaster.

The oil extraction process varies significantly, with oil sands contributing more to climate change than conventional crude oil. In Alberta, oil sands are located deep underground and the extraction process is highly carbon intensive – about 10% higher in greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil extraction process in the United States2. Thick tarry bitumen mixed with sand found beneath the boreal forest is mined. It is then mixed with crude oil and chemicals so that it is thin enough to be pumped to refineries in the United States3. The resulting highly corrosive substance erodes pipelines leading to spills, therefore there are environmental concerns around major pipelines for transporting this substance4.

The strip-mining problem at alberta sands

North of Fort McMurray, where extraction first began by Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. was highly attractive because the bitumen is near the surface allowing it to be easily strip mined. However, this is highly energy intensive and has caused catastrophic damage to the environment, including stripping the Boreal forest of topsoil. Although after extraction companies are legally required to return the land to a state equivalent to that prior5, peat lands are often replaced with swamps which house less biodiversity6. Also, these swamps sequester carbon less efficiently7. The photo below shows the monumental destruction of the landscape.

alberta sands
Clear cut mining north of Fort McMurray

The in-situ mining problem at Alberta sands

In other areas, the bitumen is deep below the surface so wells are drilled to remove it and steam is injected to mobilize it8. Consequently, this is incredibly energy intensive, for every 1 unit of energy input into tar sands extraction and processing only 5 units of energy are claimed9, even conventional oil has a return rate of roughly 25:110. The refining process is an issue as well as extraction.

Water pollution as a problem at Alberta sands

Water from the Athabasca River provides 80% of the water for this process, diverting it from the reliant ecosystems further downriver11. Wastewater from the extraction process is held in trailing ponds. Moreover, this toxic wastewater can leak into the groundwater and surrounding ecosystem, including the water sources animals rely on12. There has been controversy over the outcomes of reports such as data showing oil sands development releases toxic pollutants to the Athabasca River13. Indigenous communities are still committed to finding answers for the high rates of cancers in their communities since mining began14.

Other noticeable problems

Additionally, the tar sands oil extraction at Alberta has entailed huge resistance from indigenous peoples. This response is due to the pollution and destruction of stable ecosystems, including the habitat of animals which are an important food source15.

Breeding ground for birds have been destroyed along with habitats of other animals and plants that rely on that ecosystem, such as Caribou. Birds have also been killed directly by landing on tailing ponds. Furthermore, in 3 trailing ponds in Athabasca tar sands 122 birds died in November 2014 alone16.

This process also destroys the surrounding trees, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere and increasing global warming. Boreal forests account for 11% of total global carbon stores notwithstanding peat land which is also prominent in the Alberta Sands region17.

Conclusive effects

Overall, the environmental effects of the Alberta sands mining process are cataclysmic. Loss of forest eradicates indigenous communities’ livelihoods and has a global impact by removing carbon stores and emitting more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil extraction18.


  1. Nikiforuk, Andrew (2010) “Tar Sands dirty oil and the future of a continent” Greystone Books: Vancouver
  2. Terry, Ashley (2009) Pros and cons: Alberta oil sands, Global News https://globalnews.ca/news/66591/pros-and-cons-alberta-oil-sands/
  3. Leahy, Stephen (2019) This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing, National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/04/worlds-most-destructive-oil-operation-and-its-growing
  4. Natural Resources Defense Council (2011) Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks, Report https://assets.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf
  5. Government of Canada (2016) Oil Sands: Land Use and Reclamation https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18740
  6. Struzik, Ed. (2014) On Ravaged Tar Sands Lands, Big Challenges for Reclamation https://e360.yale.edu/features/on_ravaged_tar_sands_lands_big_challenges_for_reclamation
  7. Rooney, R. Bayley, S. Schindler, D. (2012) Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon. Volume 109: Issue 13
  8. Afework, B. et al,. (2019) In situ oil sands mining, Energy Education https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/In_situ_oil_sands_mining
  9. Hughes, D. (2013) Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance? Published by The Post Carbon Institute, Page 121 https://www.postcarbon.org/publications/drill-baby-drill/
  10. Nuwer, R. (2013) Oil Sands Mining Uses Up Almost as Much Energy as It Produces, Inside Climate News https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20130219/oil-sands-mining-tar-sands-alberta-canada-energy-return-on-investment-eroi-natural-gas-in-situ-dilbit-bitumen
  11. Indigenous Environmental Network (2019) Tar Sands https://www.ienearth.org/what-we-do/tar-sands/
  12. Dyer, S. (2009) Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development in Alberta. Resiliance https://www.resilience.org/stories/2009-09-22/environmental-impacts-oil-sands-development-alberta/
  13. Kelly, E, et al,. (2010) Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107 (37): 16178–16183.
  14. Vancouver Observer (2014) First Nations’ cancer linked to oil sands’ toxins in wild food: study https://www.vancouverobserver.com/news/first-nations-cancer-linked-oil-sands-toxins-wild-food-study
  15. Indigenous Climate Action (2020) Letter to Minister Wilkinson – Reject the Teck Frontier Tar Sands Mine Project Proposal https://www.indigenousclimateaction.com/post/letter-to-minister-wilkinson-reject-the-teck-frontier-tar-sands-mine-project-proposal
  16. CBC News (2014) 122 birds died after landing on 3 northern Alberta tailings ponds https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/122-birds-died-after-landing-on-3-northern-alberta-tailings-ponds-1.2825350
  17. Drever, R. How Canada’s Boreal Forest can be a powerful solution for climate change, Nature United https://www.natureunited.ca/what-we-do/our-priorities/innovating-for-climate-change/primer-on-forest-carbon-in-canada-s-boreal-forest/
  18. NASA Earth Observatory (2011) World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/athabasca.php