Canadian Tar Sands by Abbie Barnes

Mar 26th, 2013 | By | Category: Environmental News, Youth Blog

Oil plays a key role in supporting modern-day life. As examples, it is used in plastics, as a fuel, for heating, and as a fertilizer; the range of uses is diverse. But oil is a finite resource, meaning the rate of consumption is greater than the rate of production, and as a result of oil reserves slowly diminishing, we are continually searching for fresh ways to economically exploit oil from new areas.

In Alberta, Canada, the solution appears to have been found in tar sands. Mines the size of England dominate the landscape in an attempt to remove oil, but is this highly processed and mechanised method of extraction of oil really the answer, or should we be focusing on seeking alternatives to oil?

Tar sands (AKA oil sands) are a combination of sand, clay, water, and dense black vicious oil known as bitumen. This mixture can be mined through open cast or strip methods, processed and the bitumen refined further to produce oil. Unlike other methods of oil extraction (e.g. deep sea oil rigs), the bitumen oil does not come up from the ground under its own pressure, nor is it pumped; intensive mining processes are required to access the tar sands and remove the bitumen oil, involving vast amounts of water and energy, and producing even larger amounts of waste gases and pollution.

Strip or open cast mining causes intense damage to the natural landscape, such as the removal of trees, loss of habitat, visual and noise pollution, and water contamination. Although the processes are professionally monitored to ensure a minimal impact, it is impossible for this type of mining to leave any positive impressions on wildlife or public health.


The 24/7 processing and refinement of the tar sands and bitumen releases unimaginable quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Although, monitoring of air quality within these regions since 1995 shows improved or no change in long term air quality for the five key air quality pollutants – carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, fine particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

Within Alberta alone, more than one million barrels of synthetic oil are produced per day to supply the oil requirements of consumers, mainly the U.S. (and Canada itself), where around 20% of crude oil and products come from Canada, and a considerable amount of this amount is from tar sands. The ever-increasing price for oil means it is now economically viable for tar sands to be processed for the production of oil.

New methods of open cast mining introduced in 1990 mean that around 75% of the bitumen can be removed from the sands, but approximately two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil. Tar sands extraction and processing require several barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil, and although some of the water can be recycled, much of the used and contaminated water can leak into nearby waterways, lakes, the water table, and tailing ponds situated around the sites. In 2007, tailing ponds in Canada covered an area of approximately 50 square kilometers (19 sq mi).

Many environmental experts express their concerns over contamination of fresh water supplies, as numerous species that live both in and out of the water can be affected. Monitoring of aquatic life in 2007 showed an increase in deformity rates in fish embryos exposed to chemicals leaked out from the mines; local settlements may even be using such water, but effects are not yet known.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, Canada.

The issues with tar sands have barely been touched within this article, and clearly our never-satisfied hunger for oil is causing mass destruction of the fragile Canadian ecosystem, which, not matter what anyone says, cannot be fixed to its former wonder and beauty. Understandably, we rely heavily on oil to fuel our current life-styles, and tar sands seem a suitable solution to the falling oil reserves, in fact, more than 2 trillion barrels of oil is in the form of tar sands, although it is not all recoverable. Regardless of our desire to continually use this resource, it will eventually run out. We will have to seek alternatives. Hopefully, such materials will become known soon, before the surface of the earth is torn up in our rush for this ‘black gold’.



By Abbie Barnes, Volunteer Youth Blogger 




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