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Analysis of the Main Environmental Impacts of the Oil Sands Industry in Alberta Region


The oil sands of northern Alberta in recent years are in the center of attention, numerous discussions about economic benefits, opportunities, prospects and problems of oil sands extraction. Production in Alberta cause political conflicts and arguments both in Canada and throughout the world. Taking into account the fact that these oil sands are the second largest of known oil reserves in the world, the attention and control of this object increases every day.

While recent production from oil sands has resulted in rapid economic growth in Alberta, as well as increase in employment and growth of general prosperity, there are a lot of concerns about problems and negative effects of the development of the industry. First of all, oil extraction leads to large environmental problems. That’s the environmental damage from oil sands in Alberta is the object of study and criticism of many well-known environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Pembina Institute.

Also, some political experts and observers argue that the exploration and development of oil sands is economically disadvantageous. That is why there are complex problems which require government’s attention and control, to assess the situation in Alberta, to assess the opportunities and prospects, as well as negative factors in the industry.

This paper provides an overview of the key social and economic impacts of Alberta oil sands, some important issues and concerns, with special attention to environmental impact. Also it is necessary to point some policies which are aimed towards improvements associated with water quality, human health, and socio-economic impacts of the oil sands.

1. Overview of the oil sands in the region of Alberta, Canada

To start with it is necessary to say that oil currently is the most important industrial, commercial and economic resource in the world, and has strategic importance for the entire world economy. Reserves and sources of oil are regarded as strategically important facilities, and in this regard it is important to note that approximately 66% of the reserves of oil are contained in oil sands, and only a third of it is hidden in traditional oil fields. The most rich of the oil sands of the planet are situated in two places: in Canadian Alberta and in Venezuela (they share these resources roughly equal). According to estimations Canada has oil reserves about 178.8 billion barrels (2005), which allows it to take the second place in the world after Saudi Arabia. (energy.gov.ab.ca).

About 95% of these resources are oil sands in Alberta and the province, which is the world’s ninth largest oil producer. Oil sands are unevenly distributed in the territory of 140,000 square km in the northern province of Alberta. The first project for the extraction of oil from oil sands began its implementation in 1967, and in 2004 Alberta’s Oil Sands for the first time were recognized by international media as one of the largest parts of global oil reserves. (www.energy.gov.ab.ca)

Development of oil sands is one of the key economic resources for Canada, and it affects almost all areas in Canada, providing a stimulating effect on job creation and economic recovery. On the other hand, oil sands extraction is more expensive than conventional sources. Taking into consideration such factors as increasing world oil prices, rapid growth of demand, and new technological advances in oil extraction it is possible to speak about economic benefits that are more than cost expenses. But it is also important to note the concerns about the associated environmental impacts of oil sands extraction.

When speaking about the policies and development of the Alberta oil sands, it is necessary to speak about Alberta’s province government, which is the owner of the resources and has major control and responsibility over it. The Alberta government is responsible for setting important economic, social and environmental policies that guide oil sands development. The government has several divisions, which has special arias of responsibility:

  • the Energy Resources Conservation Board, which is responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry in Alberta;
  • Alberta Energy, which provides granting rights for exploration and development of the industry, responsible for collecting royalties and administering the energy sector’s fiscal regime;
  • Alberta Environment, which controls and regulates the impact of oil sands development on air, land, and water in the province, and is responsible for relevant legislation and policies
  • the Oil Sands Secretariat. (www.energy.gov.ab.ca)

it is also important to point some oil and gas companies which are involved in oil sands production, because they are considered important stakeholders in the province and have some power. The most influential are Imperial Oil, Suncor, Shell Canada Limited and Canadian Natural Resources.

If to talk about the modern development of oil sands, and as a consequence environmental, social and economic implications of this development, they are very significant not only for the region, but also for all Canada. Since mid-1990 the intensity of oil production in the region has significantly increased: for example, in 2006 oil production in the sands was about 1.2 million barrels per day, which represents about 42% of the total oil production in Canada. (National Energy Board , 2009)

Accordingly, the potential for further growth and development of oil sands is huge, taking into account the fact that currently only about 5% of production reserves are used. According to some experts’ estimates and forecasts, in Alberta’s the oil production could reach 5 million barrels per day by 2030. (National Energy Board)

But it is also important to note that the development of the production in the oil sands leads to an increase of associated with it political, social and environmental problems.

2. Environmental Issues and Impacts of Oil Sands Development

The environmental problems caused by the production in the oil sands are the most important and most urgent for the entire industry in Alberta. The development of the oil sands in Alberta region began more than 40 years ago, and now it covers about 84000 square km of land, which is about 60% of the whole area of the Alberta province. These lands are leased to numerous companies , including Aboriginal groups. Though the development of production requires large resources, and we can say that the production leaves an irreparable effect on the ecosystem of the region and of the whole Canada.

For example, it must be said about the use of boreal forest lands that are used in the industry, because their reclamation is very complex, and boreal ecosystems may never be fully restored. Therefore, the Alberta government requires companies to leave a deposit as insurance against unforeseen events or in case of bankruptcy. However, this warranty claim is still insufficient to protect Canadians from long-term environmental impacts of oil sands production. Recommendations of the Auditor General of Alberta for program of safety claims can be found in the report “Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation”. (www.energy.gov.ab.ca)

Environmental issue has received much public attention in the region, and is discussed by non-governmental environmental organizations, many international organizations such as Greenpeace. There are special assessment groups which must regularly control and provide reports on the environmental impacts of the industry in Alberta. For example, it can be mentioned the Pembina Institute website Oil Sands Watch , which provides information on the environmental issues of the oil sands industry. A report “ Oil Sands Fever” shows the implications of the industry, provides evidence facts and assessments, and give some recommendations on environmental management. (Government of Alberta, 2009)

Also can be mentioned reports by Alberta government, such as “Environmental Management of Alberta’s Oil Sands”, “About Oil Sands: Facts and Statistics”, and numerous reports and researches of non-governmental organisations.

The main environmental impacts outlined in the above publications are as follows:

  1. Carbon Intensity. The production and development of oil sands is very carbon-intensive and, according to the Canadian government reports, and produce the most greenhouse gases. It is important to note that Canada has signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, and promised to reduce its national greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels. But later it has abandoned the obligations, and now Canada is considered among the countries which do not participate in the international climate change negotiations.
  2. Water use and water pollution. Oil sands development impacts water resources in different ways: as a result of muskeg and overburden drainage, aquifer dewatering, withdrawal of water from the Athabasca River, long-term management of tailings. (Squires 2010) In the whole it is important to say that in the production is used great amount of fresh water (about 590,000,000 cubic metres per year, which is equivalent to what is used in a city of 3 million people ). This water is taken from the Athabasca River, and then it can’t be returned to the river system because it becomes toxic in the extraction process and must be retained in tailings ponds. (Squires 2010)
  3. The liquid tailings. Liquid tailings are toxic products that are produced while oil sands development, and contain naphthenic acids, unrecovered hydrocarbons and trace metals. These products are very toxic for animals and aquatic organisms. According to the latest research, there are over 720 billion litres of toxic tailings in the Athabasca oil sands area, which cover an area of more than 130 square kilometres. (Squires 2010) In future the polluted area is expected to expend, and more information is provided in special report “ Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation” of Pembina.
  4. Ecosystem. Development of oil sands is the cause of large-scale destruction of northern boreal forests of Alberta, as well as its ecosystem. According to experts, the effects of deforestation affects the whole living world of the region, which is the habitat of many animals, birds and insects. Therefore, the research, development of oil sands, production, building of houses and roads in the region are not always properly managed and controlled, that can lead to very bad consequences. For example, in 2008 the impact on the environment has received wide public attention, when hundreds of migratory ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond. Also there is evidence of relationship between habitat loss and reduction in the population of some species such as caribou. (Gosselin 2010) But oil sands development continues in the north-east Alberta despite all the problems and negative factors.


Oil sands in an area of Alberta are one of the largest oil reserves in the world, so recently the industry is actively developing. Production in Alberta region has important economic and social impacts for the region, and one of the most important negative influences are environmental problems. That is why oil sands development is strongly criticized by many governmental and international organizations. But despite all the arguments and controversy, there are very few restrictions placed upon water and air pollution levels, land use or toxins production. This situation is combined with the lack of a unified plan of the land use and a common set of activities to address protection of ecology and ecosystems of the region. Thus, further changes in the nature of the region and the ecological system in the oil sands continue to excite public organizations.

Works cited:

Alberta Energy. “What is Oil Sands” . Web. <http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/OilSands/pdfs/FactSheet_OilSands.pdf >
De Souza M. “Environmental impact study on Alberta oil sands slanted toward big oil: federal documents”. CANWEST NEWS SERVICE, JANUARY 7, 2010. Web. <http://www.canada.com >
Government of Alberta, “Talk about oil sands,” Web. <http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/OilSands/pdfs/FS_OilSands.pdf>.
Government of Alberta. Environmental Management of Alberta’s Oil Sands. Resourceful. Responsible. Edmonton: Government of Alberta, 2009.
Gosselin P. Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry. Ottawa, Ontario: Royal Society of Canada , 2010.
IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Growth in the Canadian Oil Sands: Finding the New Balance. 2009
National Energy Board. “Canada’s Oil Sands: Opportunities and Challenges to 2015”. An Energy Market Assessment 68. Web. <http://www.neb.gc.ca/energy>
National Energy Board. Canada’s Oil Sands. Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: An Update. Ottawa: National Energy Board, 2009. Web. <http://www.neb.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rnrgynfmtn/nrgyrprt/lsnd/lsnd-eng.html>
Squires A.J, “An approach for assessing cumulative effects in a model river, the Athabasca River basin”. Integr Environ Assess Management, 6(1), 2010. Pp. 119–134.
Steven A. Kennett. “Closing the Performance Gap: The Challenge for Cumulative Effects Management in Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Region.” in CIRL Occasional Paper №18 . Calgary: Canadian Institute of Resources Law, 2007.