Key Environmental Concerns

Syncrude facility and upgrader.
Photo courtesy: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute.

• It seems to be unclear just exactly how many millions of tonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions involve the oil sands. According to the province’s figures, oil sands activity emitted 37.2 million tonnes of GHG gasses in 2008. This accounts for 15 per cent of total Albertan emissions (five per cent of Canadian emissions and 0.1 per cent of global emissions) in 2008. [1] However, a May 2011 report by independent researcher Michelle Mech indicates those figures do not include emission from natural gas production utilized in oil sands production or the refining of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands that is done at various refineries. These among a few other factors are discussed in pp. 18-20 of this report, which conclude that total emissions may be almost double that of the 37.2 Mt figure. [2] The 2010 Royal Society of Canada report shows in-situ development emits up to 20 per cent higher GHG emissions per cubic metre of bitumen produced. In-situ development relies on burning of fossil fuels to generate the steam needed to extract the oil. [3]

• The woodland caribou, listed as a threatened species by both the federal and Alberta governments, are becoming more susceptible to predators such as wolves, coyotes, bears and cougars. Linear developments (such as roads, seismic lines or pipelines) are avoided by the caribou, which reduces their habitat as a result. Linear developments can increase traffic collisions and hunting, provide access routes for wolves and can restrict the woodland caribou from travelling freely across the landscape. [4] An endangered designation was considered by the Alberta government last year, and according to documents obtained by the Canadian Press, petroleum and forestry industry opposed the consideration. [5] There are 3,000 caribou in Alberta, split into 13 main herds. Earlier this year, University of Alberta scientists found that if current trends continue, nine of those 13 herds would be reduced to fewer than 10 animals over the next 35 years. The study also suggested a scenario that 60 per cent of the current range can still be conserved while still utilizing 98 per cent of natural resource value. [6, 7] A provincial recovery strategy outlines predator management, such as culling wolves, as a requirement when a herd faces immediate risk of extirpation (total destruction.) [8] A final federal recovery strategy is also set to be released in late spring. [9]

• Water and steam is needed to extract the bitumen from the sands through both mining and in-situ extraction. In 2011, 2.3 barrels of water were used by the oil sands mines to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil. For in-situ operations, half a barrel of freshwater and 0.3 barrels of brackish (undrinkable water with a salt level in between freshwater and seawater) water were used to produce one barrel of synthetic crude. Also in 2011, more than 170 million cubic metres of fresh water were used. [10] According to the Pembina Institute, the total amount equals to that of average residential water usage for 1.7 million Canadians. The Institute does acknowledge that actual consumption is still at a level less than what companies are licensed to divert. [11]

• Tailings ponds (sometimes called tailings lakes) are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen. Tailings water is a byproduct of mining operations. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, tailings water can be recycled for future use. [12] For example, Suncor says about three quarters of their water use comes from recycled tailings water. [13] Toxic substances however, compiled from National Pollutant Release Online Inventory [14] data by the Pembina Institute, such as arsenic, benzene, lead and mercury are also contained in the ponds. [15] Research by Dr. David Schindler and colleagues sites leakage as one concern associated with pollution in the Athabasca River, with one excerpt from a study, writing, “Concentrations of three PPE [pollutants] and four other elements known to be increased in oil sands process water are much greater in the [river] only near tailings ponds or oil sands development in winter. This finding suggests tailings pond leakage or discharge as sources of elements to the [river].” [16] Measures are in place to limit and manage seepage, such as ditches around tailings that can pump seepage back into ponds. [17] Tailings ponds occupy 176 square kilometres, with that number anticipated to expand to 250 by 2020. [18] For more on the tailings debate, also see [19] [20] for Pembina’s 2010 “Northern Lifeblood” report and Suncor’s response to the report, highlighting the reclamation of its Pond 1.

• Oil sands deposits are located in Alberta’s boreal forest. Industry is legally obligated to reclaim land disturbed by mining operations, as well as develop and receive approval of long-term planning outlining how reclamation will be achieved. As of late December 2010, 4,345 hectares of land are considered permanently reclaimed. After years-long monitoring of ecosystem growth, industry can apply for reclamation certification and if successful, the land is returned to the Crown as public land. [19] In 2008, Syncrude Canada received a reclamation certificate of 104 hectares of reclaimed land. Total active footprint as of the end of 2010 for all oil sands mining activities, including land disturbed, cleared and reclaimed 71.497 hectares. [21] One notable example of a reclaimed tailings pond is Suncor’s Pond 1, which the company announced in September 2010. Pond 1 was in operation for 40 years and was decommissioned in 2006. The company said at the time they would monitor the area for another 20 years, in hopes the land would become a productive forest and wetland. [22] On the contrary, recent research by David Schindler, Suzanne Bayley and Rebecca Rooney concludes industry claims to return the land used to a sustainable landscape equal or better to what was found is “greenwashing,” indicating postmining landscapes could only 65 per cent less peatlands than before, citing an implication that “even if the goals outlined in closure plans are achieved, peatland loss will occur with substantial impacts to ecosystem services, including carbon storage.” [23]

• One Aboriginal concern in regards to oil sands development include concerns with water pollution to the Athabasca watershed and the possibility of health concerns, including suggestion of a linkage between water pollution and a high number of cancer cases, including a rare form of bile duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. [24] The Royal Society of Canada concluded in 2010 “there is no credible evidence to support the commonly repeated media accounts of excess cancer in Fort Chipweyan being caused by contaminants released by oil sands operations, notably polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and arsenic.” [25]

Tailings pond north of Syncrude processing facility and upgrader.
Photo courtesy: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute.


[1] Alberta Energy – Oils Sands Greenhouse Gases

[2] Mech, Michelle. A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands – Retrieved from the Green Party of Canada’s official website

[3] The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel: Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry

[4] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – Alberta’s Woodland Caribou

[5] Weber, Bob. The Canadian Press. Energy, forestry industries fighting endangered status for caribou. Aug, 24, 2011, from the Toronto Star.

[6] Schneider R.R., Hauer G., Dawe K., Adamowicz W., Boutin S. (2012) Selection of Reserves for Woodland Caribou Using an Optimization Approach. PLoS ONE 7(2): e31672. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031672

[7] Struzick, Ed. Postmedia News. Saving all of Alberta’s caribou herds futile: study. February 23, 2012.

[8] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan 2004-2014

[9] Species at Risk Public Registry – Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada

[10] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – Oil Sands Information Portal: Oil Sands Water Use

[11] The Pembina Institute – Oil Sands 101: Water Impacts

[12] Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – Tailings Ponds

[13] Suncor Energy 2011 Report on Sustainability – Water

[14] Environment Canada – National Pollutant Release Online Inventory

[15] The Pembina Institute – Oil Sands 101: Tailings

[16] Erin N. Kelly, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Jeffrey W. Short, Roseanna Radmanovich, and Charlene C. Nielsen
Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries
PNAS 2010 107: 16178-16183.

[17] Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – The Facts on Oil Sands: Tailings Ponds

[18] The Pembina Institute – Oil Sands 101: Tailings

[19] The Pembina Institute – Northern Lifeblood: Empowering Northern Leaders to Protect the Mackenzie River Basin from Oil Sands Risks

[20] Suncor OSQAR Blog – Why Pembina is Wrong About Tailings Ponds

[21] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – Oil Sands Mining and Development Reclamation

[22] Suncor – Suncor Energy completes surface reclamation of first tailings pond

[23] Rebecca C. Rooney, Suzanne E. Bayley, and David W. Schindler
Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon
PNAS 2012 109: 4933-4937.

[24] – The Pembina Institute – Canadian Aboriginal Concerns with Oilsands

[25] The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel – Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry