Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:

A Complete Guide

Environmental Impact

Environmental Catastrophe?

Air, Land, Water, Health and Climate

Oil sands extraction does tremendous harm to the environment, and as a result the oil sands are the most polarizing issue in Canadian politics. Yet it can be difficult to find accurate and objective information about the real environmental impacts of development. Those both for and against development are guilty of disseminating biased information, funneling money into dubious studies or cherrypicking facts. Indeed, finding unbiased information on any energy issue is challenging, as I discovered writing articles for the educational website

Here I will do my best to cut through the spin and provide a quick overview of the most reliable data I could find to give an understanding of what construction in the oil sands means for the climate, for the air, water, and land around Fort McMurray, and for the health of people living nearby.

Climate Change

Bitumen from the oil sands is frequently called the dirtiest fuel in the world. If you ignore coal, which is worse (and burned by the billions of tonnes by almost every nation on earth), this might be true. Getting at bitumen takes far more energy than conventional oil, and in today’s world more energy is synonymous with more carbon.

How much more energy than conventional crude? The Energy Return On Investment (EROI) is the ratio of energy input to energy output. In most conventional oil fields the EROI varies between 10 and 20, meaning for every barrel of oil’s worth of energy put in, 10 to 20 barrels of oil are pulled out. In the oil sands that ratio is between 4 and 6. This is a tremendous disparity: It takes between two and five times more energy to draw a barrel from the oil sands than it does from most of the world’s other oil fields.

The EROI of our energy sources is a number we may be hearing a lot more of in the future. Many academics believe that relying on energy resources with an EROI of less than 11:1 will cause the collapse of industrial civilization. The low EROI of the oil sands is an obvious symptom of the end of the oil age and a disturbing reminder that we must escalate the deployment of alternatives to the top of the political agenda and on a similar scale and urgency as the efforts nations made to wage the world wars. But we will not dwell on that for now.

An upgrader working at full tilt to process bitumen.

The greater energy required to extract bitumen from the oil sands translates into a higher carbon footprint: around 3.2 to 4.5 times more carbon per barrel. In mining most of that extra carbon comes from diesel burned in heavy haulers, while at SAGD facilities it’s from the natural gas burned to make steam. Then in both cases a lot of extra carbon comes from upgrading, as can be seen in the picture above. In the case of SAGD extraction, nuclear power plants could be used to generate the steam instead of gas, drastically reducing the carbon footprint. Nuclear power is amongst the cleanest energy sources in the world, cleaner than hydropower and solar. Using uranium instead of natural gas would bring the carbon emissions per barrel from SAGD operations closer to the norm for conventional oil.

One of Ontario's nuclear reactors. Nuclear power could be used to power SAGD facilities in the oil sands, dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

Canada actually has one of the most advanced nuclear power industries in the world and a switch from natural gas to nuclear for oil sands production would not only benefit the climate, but create thousands of highly skilled green jobs in Ontario and Quebec. It would be encouraging to see a political party champion a bold alliance between Eastern Canada’s nuclear industry and Western Canada’s petroleum industry, a partnership that could pay enormous long term dividends for all Canadians. This will not happen because many people have a reflexive and poorly articulated opposition to nuclear power which has stymied virtually all development of this promising power source for the last two decades (When nuclear projects are well managed and the newest technology is used nuclear power is extremely safe). In all likelihood natural gas will continue to power all SAGD operations and drive Canada’s spiralling carbon emissions.

The majority of the carbon emitted by oil does not come from the extraction process, but from its end use when it’s burned as vehicle fuel. Wells-to-wheels, another form of analysis, takes this entire process into account and is frequently cited by proponents of oil sands development. In these measurements Alberta bitumen only gives off about 37% more carbon than conventional oil. It might even be as little as 12% more—it’s a matter of intense debate. Really all this tells us is that every stage of the oil economy is extremely carbon intensive.

The climate implications are bleak. If Alberta was a country it would have the world’s worst record on climate change with the highest per capita carbon emissions on the planet. That’s 60 tonnes per person, more than triple the Canadian average and higher even than the oil kingdoms in the Persian Gulf like Qatar. If all the oil in the oil sands was to be burned it would drive a global temperature increase of 0.4° Celsius, about half the total temperature increase that has occurred to date since the start of the Industrial Revolution (though once again only about 8% of this oil is currently accessible and therefore 8% of 0.4°C is a more likely warming figure).

Can the oil sands be justified from a climate perspective?

A diagram of proposed a Carbon Capture and Storage project. Alberta has two CCS projects, both have cost billions of dollars and both are behind schedule and never likely to prove economically feasible for wider deployment. Getting CCS to work (and work cheaply) is one of the most important efforts under way to tackle climate change, and it is failing.

In a report entitled 'Solving the Puzzle,' the Pembina Insistute, a Calgary-based environmental thinktank, proposed a number of measures to reconcile oil sands development with Canada's carbon cutting obligations. Foremost amongst them was a carbon tax which would incentivize low carbon technologies while giving government the funding to pursue green initiatives. Virtually every economist in the world believes a carbon tax is the correct way to tackle climate change. In the long term the full-scale implementation of carbon capture and storage technologies would also dramatically reduce the oil sands' carbon footprint. CCS technology is interesting because if it could be cheaply implemented en masse at coal plants and other large emitters of carbon around the world, it could very well save us all from catastrophic climate change. We could have our cake and eat it too. Unfortunately the technology is unproven, its roll-out has been delayed again and again, and research is underfunded.

Still we must not lose sight over the big picture. In a 2012 interview with the Globe and Mail, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, the industrialized world's Paris-based energy advisory body, put the oil sands in their global climate context:

“If the necessary [mitigation] measures are taken in terms of the production and transportation of oil sands, this will not have any significant impact on CO2 emissions growth,” Mr. Birol said. “Compared to the major emitting countries, this is not peanuts, it is a small fraction of peanuts, still only a tiny piece of the global energy pie."

Canada accounts for only 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, while China emits 10 times Canada’s levels and is growing quickly. And while the oil sands represents the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada, it accounts for just 0.1 per cent of global emissions, according to Government of Canada figures.

He went on to emphasize this in another interview in November 2014.

“The additional contribution [of greenhouse gases] coming from the oil sands in Canada, compared to the same amount of oil from Middle East or Brazil or central Asia, is completely peanuts,” he said. “It is less than one day of CO2 emissions of China – less than one day; it’s a couple of hours.”

He said the real challenge involves less where the crude comes from, but in reducing oil demand as quickly as possible, and in switching the world’s electricity system off coal-fired power.

When the oil sands viewed as one component of the global energy economy, as the IEA views them, the economic disruption that could result from oil shortages outweighs the impact the oil sands have on the climate.

The area where SAGD projects are feasible is many times greater than that of mining.

Reclaiming the Land After Mining

The oil sands lie underneath Alberta’s share of the hemisphere-spanning boreal forest. Short spruce and poplar trees grow thickly in a complex wetland ecosystem called muskeg. The ground freezes solid in winter and turns into a thickly vegetated mosquito-infested swamp in summer. The landscapes are beautiful and fascinating (if vexing to work in).

The area where mining is feasible is limited to about 4,750 square kilometres. What will happen to all this land? Once the muskeg is torn up and the bitumen mined out can the land be returned to its original state? The jury is still out on that. There have been some reclamation efforts by Suncor, Syncrude and Shell, but they are small and falling increasingly behind schedule. A yawning gap is forming between the amount of land being reclaimed, and that being mined.

I hiked through one reclaimed area and, while it looked like a healthy highland forest to my untrained eyes, it obviously had little in common with the dense wetland areas that characterize the region. There was a colourful chemical slick in one of the few ponds. Biologists have recorded a conspicuous decline in biodiversity around the ongoing reclamation projects, though these are early days and over time the flora and fauna may yet return to something like its previous state.

Scientists simply don’t yet know if this reclamation will work as well as advertised. It has yet to be done successfully. “We don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re hopeful that we’ll get some good plant community ... that is characteristic of some of the reference systems in the area,” said Jonathan Price, a University of Waterloo biologist developing the wetland reclamation program.

One more concern pointed out in a study by the Royal Society of Canada is that there are insufficient legal safeguards in place to force oil companies to follow through on the expensive and time-consuming work of reclamation. Years from now when the oil companies are winding down their oil sands operations, Alberta taxpayers may be shocked to find themselves on the hook for much of the final cost of land restoration, a potentially prohibitive price tag.

A Hike on Reclaimed Land


Work on a road leading to well pads at a SAGD facility.

The environmental effects of SAGD projects are not as blindingly obvious as those of mining projects, but they still have a serious detrimental impact on the health of local ecosystems. SAGD technology is new, and as yet little study has been done on its ecological footprint. If SAGD building is to go ahead without denuding a large part of Alberta’s boreal forest of wildlife, measuring and mitigating this footprint will be essential. SAGD projects will soon come to define the oil sands: the land where SAGD extraction is possible is 50 times larger than that where mining is possible, an area the size of Florida, and a not insignificant chunk of Canada’s expansive boreal forest.

The forests around SAGD plants are not dug up. Instead they are criss-crossed by a bewildering network of roads, well pads, pump stations and pipelines. The Pembina Institute did a study of the land around Nexen/CNOOC's Long Lake Facility to measure the impact of SAGD projects. For starters, they found fully 80% of the enormous plot of land around Long Lake is within 250 metres of some industrial feature. Many animals unique to this habitat are sensitive to human activities and avoid the clear cutting, noise and people that accompany industrial development. Scientists measured a calamitous drop in the populations of birds, wildcats, bears and caribou around the Long Lake Facility. Prior to the arrival of Nexen this land was a pristine wilderness.

The entire region is in the process of being divvied up into huge plots and handed to multi-national oil companies. About two thirds of it has been parcelled out so far. The oil companies will subdivide the land into grids demarcated by roads and pipelines that stretch to the horizon. Wildlife will be chased away, receding into the background and forced to compete for increasingly scarce habitat. Populations of hawks, beavers, wolves, black bears, foxes, lynxes and arctic hares, just to name a few, will be fractured and perhaps driven to local extinction.

Cut lines for SAGD wells extend every direction to the horizon.

We should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that nothing is being done to protect wildlife though. I remember at my orientation for work at a ConocoPhillips SAGD project, a dashing Texan oilman explained the company's environmental policy.

"When I first started here I wanted to know why building at Pad 7 had been stalled for three months. I was told there were a pair of hawks breeding in a tree near the pad. I said 'Well why the hell don't we go out and shoot the damn things?! I'll go get my gun right now!' That's what we would have done back home. Well that's not how we do things here in Canada. They told me we were going to wait until their hatchlings are old enough to leave the nest, and only once all the birds have moved on will we begin work. We're still waiting for those damned birds to move."

Then he explained how we were to report all wildlife sightings to the environmental officers (there are specific cards to do this at all job sites) and they would ascertain if our work was interfering with their existence, and if that was the case work would be halted.

Nevertheless, the Pembina Institute study states, “Although mitigation and reclamation efforts will be beneficial, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, even with state-of-the-art practices, the cumulative ecological impacts of in situ development will be devastating.” What is needed, argues the report, are wildlife reserves, a cap in industrial impacts in the region to prevent the collapse of ecosystems, and a slowdown in development. The power to enforce these development curbs lies in the hands of the provincial and federal governments.

Water Strain

The water needs of oil sands facilities are large, especially on mining projects. 2.5 barrels of water are needed for every barrel of oil produced through mining, while the ratio is 0.5 barrels of water at SAGD plants. The Long Lake SAGD plant uses about 23,000 cubic metres of water a day. 90% of this water is reused, but the remaining 10% that must be continually replaced still adds up to a large draw upon the aquifers and the Athabasca River. Moreover almost none of the water is recycled back into the natural water cycle, instead being left in toxic tailings lakes (mining) or pumped deep underground (SAGD). In a potentially promising development Syncrude is building a pilot plant that can detoxify water from the tailings lakes enough to return it to the natural water cycle. It is scheduled to begin operating in 2015.

Currently oil companies only withdraw around 2% of the Athabasca River's flow, but they are permitted to withdraw up to 15% of the river's water during the low-flow winter months. Many reports agree there is insufficient water monitoring data available to fully understand the effects of oil sands development on aquatic ecosystems. The same is true for monitoring quantities of heavy metals like mercury and vanadium that may leech out of the tailings lakes. Worryingly, a recent federal study found that millions of litres of toxic waste is already leaking out of the tailings lakes and into the Athabasca River.

The Athabasca River seen from downtown Fort McMurray.

Air Quality

One of the first things you notice about Fort McMurray is the pungent smell of asphalt that constantly lingers in the air (The Smell of MoneyTM). This smell mostly comes from the mining operations, though SAGD facilities emit noxious odors too. Working around them is unpleasant. This is the main air quality issue, as the broader indicators are still pretty good. The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association monitors regional air quality and posts updates on their website, Nevertheless, there are concerns that emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the primary drivers of acid rain, are rising to dangerous levels. More will have to be done in future to tackle these emissions.

Smoke from forest fires in the North-West Territories obscures the sun.

Mysterious Cancers and Other Health Impacts

A few workers are killed and injured working in the oil sands every year, but does the pollution from these projects cause illnesses in those who live nearby? The small First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, downriver from Fort Mcmurray, has become the focal point of an intense debate over cancers caused by oil sands runoff. Some studies have tied industrial runoff to a spike in rare cancers in the region. Levels of mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals are higher than expected in moose-meat and fish frequently consumed by the town’s inhabitants, though not yet considered dangerous.

Other studies have shown that the cancer rate is pretty much average: 81 cases over the past 15 years, compared to an expected frequency of 79. The threat is not so pernicious as to obviously impact traditional lifestyles and even this tainted wild meat is still considered healthier than store bought processed food. I frequently saw people fishing in the Athabasca. A number of my coworkers from Fort Chip had few qualms about eating the fish or game caught downriver from Fort Mcmurray. I was honestly surprised when I arrived to find that most of the region is still forested and unspoilt. I saw lots of wildlife. It is still far from a polluted, uninhabitable wasteland. But if business and government are not careful that may soon change.

We must not forget that almost all of this development is occurring on traditionally First Nations' land. The oil sands are one of the most valuable resources caches in the world and those who will be developing them have been given a license to essentially print money. It seems obvious that no expense should be spared in ensuring those upon whose land this is occurring are protected and they are given every possible compensation.

Not to diminish the cancers in Fort Chipewyan, but people quickly forget that Alberta still gets 43% of its electricity from coal power plants. Those living near coal plants are found to be 60% more likely to contract a respiratory illness like lung cancer. 24,000 people die prematurely from coal plant emissions in the United States every year while tens of thousands more suffer from asthma, bronchitis and various respiratory illnesses. While the health impacts of coal plants are demonstrably much greater than the oil sands they do not attract any attention in the press or on social media. We should also be talking about Alberta's ignored coal addiction.

None of this information is particularly reassuring. In some ways oil companies are making enormous efforts to minimize the impacts of development, investing tens of billions in new cleaner technologies and in slow and costly land reclamation. Yet the speed of development is fast outpacing the ability of companies to safeguard the environment, and inevitably this rush will lead to unforeseen problems down the line. Ideally, vigorous government oversight and a slowdown in development would give environmental science and technology a chance to catch up and minimize development's ecological footprint. Since the oil in the ground is not going anywhere, and neither is oil demand, investing in these steps is a no brainer.

After learning about all these environmental problems caused by development should one want to work there? Is it ethical? Let's find out what I think!