Megan Moore

The Alberta Tar Sands, located in northern Canada, contain the largest deposits of bitumen oil in the world. The tar sands hold a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen (see Bitumen), a heavy oil that is coveted by many major companies.  Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and Syncrude are just a few companies invested in what they term the “Oil Sands.” Many environmental organizations have been trying to stoptar sands development for years. The tar pits have slowly turned northern Alberta into a giant toxic dump site. 

The picture below shows an aerial view of the Alberta Tar Sands.

(Credit: Green Peace)

(Credit: Green Peace)


The Alberta Tar Sands have the largest carbon footprint of any industrial infrastructure in the world. Bitumen extraction produces four times the amount of greenhouse gases of conventional oil extraction. The Alberta Tar Sands burning process releases more carbon emissions than New Zealand and Kenya combined, producing an average of 4.7 million tons (Segal). How does such a “positive” industry cause so much damage? After factoring in its environmental costs,  Tar Sands operations expend more energy and resources than they are even worth. The world consumes on average 32 billion barrels of oil per year, and the Tar Sands only have a total supply numbering 168 billion barrels (Swart & Fyfe). 

Extraction Techniques


(Credit: Ramp)

 Most bitumen lies as much as 200 feet underground. Companies reach the bitumen by using two different in-situ methods. Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) is used by drilling deep wells and injecting high-pressure steam into the Earth’s crevices. The heat from the steam melts the bitumen, which is then pumped to the surface through recovery wells. This extraction process accounts for 80% of the bitumen extracted in Alberta.

The second in-situ method is called Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). This method involves drilling two wells horizontally into the ground. Heated steam is inserted into the upper well, where the pressure and heat melts the bitumen and causes it to flow down to the second well. The bitumen is then pumped to the surface and water is injected into the deposit to keep the bitumen flowing after it is removed (RAMP).

Open-Pit Mining

The second technique used is called open-pit mining. Open-pit tar sand mines stretch across 50,000 miles of land in Alberta. Even though these open-pit mines are massive in size, they only make up 10% of bitumen extraction in Alberta. Miners use large shovels to scoop the oil and sand mixture into gigantic trucks, each of which which stands roughly two- stories tall and can hold up to 400,000 tons. These trucks then transport the mixture to giant crushers to break it down. A large amount of water is then mixed with the bitumen and transported by pipelines to another plant, where the mixture is turned into pure oil. During this process, 2.5 gallons of fresh water are wasted for every half barrel of oil. The leftover water is then dumped into a toxic lake, to be recycled later (RAMP).

(Credit: Rabble)

(Credit: Rabble)

(Credit: Rabble)

(Credit: Rabble)


Tailings Ponds

Tailings ponds contain leftover wastewater from the mining process that is dammed into artificial pools. Tailings sludge is made up of water, sand, clay, and oil that contains high levels of mercury, benzene, lead and arsenic (Maier). Miners use the ponds as a way to recycle the water, but they are more harmful than positive. These tailings ponds stretch out to cover about 100 miles of land. Some ponds are so large in size, they can be seen from outer-space.

A major concern is that the ponds are leaking an estimated 12 million liters of toxic water per day into surface waters and groundwater (Young). By contaminating the groundwater with toxins, the Tar Sands would eliminate any source of drinking water for local communities (See Cree & Oil in Alberta). The contaminated water is not only poisonous to humans, but it is devastating to aquatic life. Fish populations have been rapidly declining in nearby waters, and those that do survive are contaminated with the toxins or have abnormal growths and tumors.

With all of the seepage, cleaning up the bitumen is a much more difficult process than crude oil. It is heavier than crude oil so when it spills, the sediments sink to the bottom. This makes cleaning up the oil a very expensive and complex task. Oil companies argue that these poisonous tailings ponds will eventually evaporate, but it can take up to 30 years for each individual tailing pond to evaporate completely. Even after a tailings pond has served its purpose, its presence cannot ever be permanently erased (Mayer).


Another major problem in the Tar Sands is flaring, or the controlled burning of natural gas as part of production and processing. Flaring is used during the production of oil, and during the process it releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and methane into the atmosphere (Asadollahi). Flaring wastes valuable gas resources, and produces emissions that are harmful to people and the environment. In northern Alberta, there are higher cancer rates, negative respiratory health, and even vision and skin problems. The chemicals being released can acidify lakes and affect the growth of surrounding crops. In 2012, flaring and venting from the Tar Sands contributed 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Asadollahi). Flaring is inherently dangerous to the environment and surrounding communities, but workers must use flaring because it manages the excess gases that have accumulated over time and without it, the risk of explosions increase. 

Effects on Wildlife

Many migratory birds try to land in tailings ponds, where they drown in the sludge or die due to chemical exposure. Miners implement different methods to ward off animals—such as scarecrows, decoy predators, cannons, and radar systems—but they have been largely unsuccessful. In 2012, the tailings ponds claimed 1,600 bird deaths (Biello). As many as 5 million birds use the region's wetlands to breed and raise their young. Since the presence of the mines, the estimated number of bird deaths has been close to 400,000, from hens and cranes to swans and songbirds (Young).  The Tar Sands are in the middle of Canada’s boreal forest, which is home to the largest wild caribou herd. The George River herd contains 400,000 animals that are showing signs of distress. Caribou migration patterns are being disrupted by noise pollution and infrastructure.  Local hunters are reporting moose and caribou with abnormal growths, believed to be caused by the toxins in nearby water sources. Locals also say their fish catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many in the community no longer eat lake fish (Kunzig). 

(Credit: CGF3M)

(Credit: CGF3M)

(Credit: Wordpress)

(Credit: Wordpress)


(Credit: Wordpress)

(Credit: Wordpress)

Northern Alberta was once covered in clean lakes, trees, streams, and wildlife. The oil industry has since replaced this vibrant ecosystem with sludge, polluted water, and smoke.  Tar Sands companies are moving more oil in the Athabasca Valley than any place on Earth, posing enormous risks to the many boreal types of trees, berries, and wetlands. Tar Sands operations, stretching across thousands of miles of land, are responsible for 20% of the deforestation to this fragile area. The wetlands in northern Canada are one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, second only to the Amazon Rainforest.  The wetlands are vital to the Earth because they clean the air, water, and absorb vast amounts of greenhouse gases. Tar sands mines have bulldozed over the top of these precious ecosystems, destroying almost a third of the wetlands. The oil companies try and restore the land once it has been used, but they do not know how to recreate a wetland, which is a complex ecosystem that is nearly impossible to recreate (Lenz).

Empty Promises of Employment

Many companies offer the promise of boosting the economy and bringing more jobs to northern Alberta. They let people falsely assume their megaprojects generate local jobs. Canadian National Resources Limited has begun offering three flights a week from Alberta to Newfoundland. The Canadian government has begun to persuade people by promising large wages and flying workers in from all over Canada. Alberta Tar Sand companies are taking advantage of the Temporary Foreign Work Program and using it to bring down labor costs, heighten production, reset safety regulations, and undermine the unions in place (Neatby). Recent downturns in oil prices have brought economic turmoil to the oil-dependent economies.

Exploitation of Workers

The oil companies are not just putting the environment at risk, but also their very own workers. Employment in the Tar Sands leads to very hazardous working conditions. Oil company employees work under extreme conditions, with crews operating around the clock through hot summers and subzero winters to meet heavy demand. Many oil workers are uninformed about the type of chemicals they are exposed to, and the effects of those chemicals. According to Alberta’s Workers Conservation Board (WCB) statistics, the WCB accepted only 29 new claims for work-related cancer and documented 38 fatalities due to occupational cancer in 2005 (Neatby). However, the Alberta Cancer Board estimates that eight per cent of all cancers in Alberta are work-related. This means over 1,000 new cases of work-related cancers are diagnosed and more than 400 workers die of occupational cancer each year (Johal).

Alberta currently has one of the highest rates of workplace deaths in Canada. The number of workplace accidents reported in the province in 2006 was 181,159 (Johal). Oil companies are hiring people under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows companies to hire immigrants from all over the world but the employers can send them back to their home countries at any time. Currently there are between 2,000-3,000 temporary workers (Neatby). This creates a very dangerous work environment because of the language barrier between Canadian workers and foreign workers. The workers being impacted often are not adequately trained for the positions they hold. Since working with heavy machinery is dangerous, a slight miscommunication can lead to a fatality. Not only are temporary workers not properly trained, but they are being exploited as well. The temporary foreign workers are only paid 5 dollars per hour despite the going rate of 22-29 dollars per hour plus benefits for Canadian employees. Most of these temporary employees are the ones that are working deep in the mines. They are kept away from the upgraded working facilities with filtered air. They are discriminated against because they are not allowed to be a part of the union, nor are they able to apply for landed status or citizenship in Canada until they have been employed for two years. This makes some employees work in less than ideal working conditions until the time requirement has been filled. Tar Sands companies are taking advantage of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and using it to bring down labor costs, heighten production, reset safety regulations, and undermine the unions in place. 

A New Direction

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015, his government has been focusing more on climate change and has promised to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint. The Alberta Tar Sands are damaging to Canada’s global image and are less lucrative as oil prices drop. Oil companies in the Tar Sands are still looking to expand their business, but movements to stop the development are increasingly successful. Many organizations, such as Keepers of the Athabasca, and other grassroots groups are spreading awareness and calling on citizens to act. As Mr. Harvey Scott, founder of Keepers of the Athabasca, stated, “Each of us as humans, we are responsible… keepers of the water and land. So you…are just as responsible keeping your land and water there as we are here with the Athabasca, we must work together.” 


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Maier, A., Schumann, B.L., Chang, X., Talaska, G., & Puga, A. (2009, September) Arsenic coexposure potentiates benzo(a)pyrene genotoxicity. Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute?  Mutation Residential 2002; 517: 101-11. 

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Young, N. (2014, November). Bird deaths reported on Alberta Oil Sands tailings ponds. The Globe and Mail.