Northern Alberta’s Toxic Wasteland – Vast and Growing “Vaster” Everyday—Courtesy of Oil Sands Operators!

a.k.a. Alberta Oil Sands, By Any Name …. By Any Standard (Part Two)

“ITS ADDICTION to oil drives the world capitalist economy to ever more devastating destruction. And the new oil rush in the Canadian province of Alberta is ripping up an area of land bigger than England. The prize is huge amounts of crude bitumen held in tar sands.” – Socialism Today, Issue 146

Item 1: Alberta’s oil sands operations are turning Northern Alberta into a vast toxic wasteland not fit for habitation by any flora and fauna; unfit, worst of all, to the even more fragile homo sapiens, the species to which you and I belong.

Item 2: The rate of this despicable violation of mother earth is such that if it continues unabated we will see, a few years from now, an area as big as England (plus, maybe, Wales) transformed into a yawning Arabia Deserta — a poisoned and poisonous Death Valley, unfit for life and human living.

Item 3: Reportedly, so massive is the pending disaster that the well-being of the soon-to-be-“Late-Great-Planet-Earth” (and its 7-Billion-to-date-humans) hangs in the balance. Of particular interest globally is the impending denudation of Canada’s boreal forest cover.

The three preceding paragraphs are my paraphrase  of  the contention of and argumentative claim by inveterate critics of Alberta oil sands. If one Googles “oil sands” or “tarsands” they are bound to encounter quite a number of pages that will cite  so-called data, statistics, scientific views, insights and positions that have one conclusion: Alberta oil sands is the worst environmental disaster in the making — globally. But how much of this vitriol is fact; how much, balderdash?

Let’s start with incontestable official data and statistics relevant to the oil sands of Alberta and its impact, actual and potential, upon Canada’s boreal forest.

Alberta Oil Sands vis-à-vis Canada’s Boreal Forest Cover

The following table suggests a basic reply to the question of how big an impact will Alberta oil sands have on Canada’s boreal forest. Admittedly a more in-depth treatment is required to approximate, at the very least, the qualitative and quantitative impact of the oil sands on the boreal forest.

The tabulated data seeks mainly to put in proper perspective and gauge the accuracy of the introductory quote above which, to my mind, should be taken at best as a hyperbole rather than a statement of fact.

The preceding tabulated data shows that to-date 602 Km2 of surface-mineable oil sands land have been disturbed for open-pit bitumen extraction. This land area corresponds to 0.2% of Canadian boreal forest or 0.4% of total Alberta oil sands. Yet when images of strip mining on the surface-mineable part of the oil sands are circulated the incorrect message put across, wittingly or unwittingly, is that the entire 142,000 Km2 of oil sands (indeed an area bigger than England) would be subjected to such scarring, disturbance and “violation”.

The truth, however, is that IF all of the surface-mineable portion of Alberta oil sands were to be strip-mined the total area that would be subjected to land disturbance would amount to 4,800 Km2 . That would correspond to about 1.3% of boreal forest, or 4% of England’s total land area — not anywhere near the whole of England alone, much less with Wales combined.

The image below seeks to provide a visual perspective as to the size of Alberta oil sands in relation to Canadian boreal forest.

Source of basic image —  Alberta’s Oil Sands: Fast Facts  (Box and Connecting Arrow Supplied by Author)

Yet, to this day several internet pages and sites continue to perpetuate the misinformation. Take for example the quote given above, from the UK Socialist Party’s newsletter. Alberta oil sands critics with internet and social networking presence do routinely copy, twit, and re-publish the same at their own or some other aggregator sites without paying even lip-service to casual fact-checking and verification.

I do not by any means pooh-pooh or minimize the significance of 602 Km2 of oil sands land presently disturbed, or the projected 4,800 Km2 of surface-mineable Northern Alberta land in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest that stand to be strip-mined under current licensing agreements. Every square meter of such land is of high ecological importance; they should be subjected only to disturbance (such as fossil fuel extraction) for far more transcendent reasons than preserving pristine ecology. Moreover, such disturbance should only be made in a very judicious manner employing the most stringent measures available not only at the land exploitation phase but even more importantly at the land restoration and regeneration stage.

Open-pit Mining vs. In-Situ Extraction of Bitumen

Lost in the din and heat of controversy over the oil sands of Alberta is one glaring fact: a huge majority of the bitumen deposits, 80% by most reliable estimates, stands to be recovered NOT by strip mining. It will be recovered through the more eco-benign method known as in-situ extraction. Indeed, 20% of bituminous sands which lies very close to the surface will be recovered through strip mining. But hold your horses: even in respect of this most maligned extraction method operators in the Alberta oil sands continue to innovate and apply new and better technologies and systems for both bitumen extraction and land reclamation.

Just to restate the facts: two kinds of operations are used to extract bitumen out of the Alberta oil sands: a) open-pit mining and; and b) in-situ drilling. The former requires mine pits, tailings ponds,  and uses giant shovels and trucks and the more recent and less disturbing mode of slurry transport via a network of pipelines. Percent-wise about one fifth (20%) of oil sands would use this extraction method applicable to deposits lying less than 75 meters below the surface.

The other 80% that will rely on in-situ drilling do not need either mine pits or tailings ponds. In terms of land disturbance, this method produces a far softer impact than open-pit mining. In fact most reliable estimates put the figure at less than 5% of an in-situ lease area being subjected, typically, to land disturbance.

A related subject that tends to be glossed over, if not deliberately ignored, is the highly sustained and successful marshalling of new technologies for bitumen extraction and land reclamation (or land restoration and regeneration – my preferred terminology, if you would allow me). Right now I do not have the time and space to cite even just a few of such oil sands exploration, production and reclamation technologies. I will do so at next post.

Post-Script: Family, friends, acquaintances, and even “long-lost” former classmates who have recently reconnected via social networking — and that includes the dwindling list from my elementary class of ’66 back in that small town at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountains in the province of Laguna, RP) — and now scattered across the globe (in Southeast Asia, Australia, Spain, Ireland, North America, etc.) have asked for more information about the oil sands and its global impact.

I profess no expertise at all on the subject; but as I search the internet, attend professional lectures, read reputable industry magazines, I must say one needs really to listen to and gain insights from sources on both sides of the fence: for or against the oil sands. Continuing with this series I intend to highlight remarkable insights even running cross-grain to my own opinions. I owe readers that much of a responsibility and accountability to give them a balanced view. At least that’s what I aspire to do.

 At next post, for instance, please expect to read some gleanings from the Pembina Institute whose site (despite well-meaning but very contrary advice from pro-oil sands friends) I consider an excellent cyber place to learn more about the oil sands, among others.


About b., peternolasco

Customer Education Specialist with geoLOGIC Systems Ltd.; keen student and practitioner of corporate adult learning and learning communities in the context of organizational change and development.
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1 Response to Northern Alberta’s Toxic Wasteland – Vast and Growing “Vaster” Everyday—Courtesy of Oil Sands Operators!

  1. Francis says:

    If Canadian environmental policies in Alberta were to be only half applied around the world, almost every oil producing country would be 1000 times ahead in rebuilding their environment…and they’d still be nowhere near to where Alberta oil companies are in environmental investment.

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