Canadian Tar Sands

Tar sands are mixtures of clay, sand, water and bitumen. The bitumen can be refined to produce oil. Tar sands have to be mined, usually via strip mining, and then oil is extracted by heating.

Extraction is more complicated than with normal extraction. It has to be extracted, separated and then refined. It also needs to be upgraded first because it is so thick, and requires dilution with smaller hydrocarbons so it can travel through the pipelines.

There are an estimated 2 x 10^12 barrels of oil in tar sands globally, with the largest deposits in Canada and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Only Canada has a real industry in it, producing 40% of their oil production. Most of this is in Alberta, with 4,750 km^2 leased out to tar sands extraction.

Both mining and processing of tar sands produce many environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality. The development of a commercial tar sands industry can have significant social and economic impacts on local communities. Of special concern in relatively arid areas is the amount of water required for tar sands processing; currently, tar sands extraction and processing require far more water than the amount of oil that is produced, although some of this can be recycled.

Development pollutes the land, air, and water with dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in northern Alberta and along leak-prone pipeline routes that carry this highly corrosive cargo through communities and waterways across North America, causing numerous health risks. Not only does refining of tar sands increase hazardous air pollution, it also produces an especially dirty, carbon-intensive by-product known as petroleum coke, which is often burned like coal, increasing pollution greatly.  

It also obliterates forests, rivers and wetlands from an area the size of Florida, destroying an internationally recognized ecosystem and reducing the amount of habitat available for a number of sensitive and endangered wildlife species. Expansion puts major populations of caribou, songbirds, and fish at risk of extirpation.

Producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands by mining requires two to four barrels of fresh water after taking into account water recycling. Companies are currently licensed to withdraw over 590 x 10^6 cubic metres of water per year, which is roughly equivalent to what a city of 3 million people would require. Water for oil sands mining is pumped from the Athabasca River, a river that fluctuates seasonally as well as year to year, and withdrawing water during natural low flow periods (which occur primarily in the winter) has the potential to harm aquatic life in the river. This water cannot be returned to the river system because it becomes toxic in the extraction process and must be retained in “tailings” ponds.

There are currently over 720 x 10^9 litres of toxic water in tailing ponds actoss the Athabasca oil sands area. These ponds cover an area of more than 130 km^2. By 2040 these tailings are expected to occupy 310 km^2, an area nearly the size of Vancouver.

A study noted elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers in areas surrounding upgrading and petrochemical manufacturing facilities in Alberta.

The Alberta Energy Regulator is finally responding to years of reports by residents that emissions and odours from tar sands drilling and processing are making them sick. According to news reports, public hearings began in early 2014 following complaints that the tar sands operations have caused nausea, headaches, skin rashes, memory loss, joint pain, exhaustion, and respiratory problems, and have forced several families to leave the area.

A 2008 study by Environmental Defence Canada, found that as much as 2.9 x 10^6 gallons of water leaks from tar sands tailings ponds into the environment daily.

Companies from all over the world — from the United States and Abu Dabai to South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany, the UK and China – own huge chunks of Alberta’s tar sands. Many Canadian workers in the tar sands may be seeing large pay cheques, but there are enormous downsides. Long hours, poor accommodation, exploitation, remote job locations and a lack of job security are common complaints

Cheap labour practices allow tar sands oil companies to cut costs by hiring non-unionized workers and workers from other countries. There were 57,843 temporary foreign workers in Alberta in 2008 — a 55% jump from 2007. In a recent survey in Alberta, more than half of respondents said they were not benefiting from the oil; 56% felt that citizens are not receiving a fair share of the wealth being generated.

Between 1996 and 2006 more than 700,000 people poured into Alberta to work in the oil industry, creating severe housing shortages and a $7,000,000,000 infrastructure shortfall in roads, schools and healthcare facilities.

In 2006 homelessness in Edmonton increased by 19 per cent, while Calgary has seen a 458 per cent growth in the number of homeless people since 1996. Front line workers report that among the homeless, families and employed individuals are increasing in numbers. In one decade, the price of a single-family home in Fort McMurray rose from $174,000 to more than $800,000 – twice the average price of a home in Canada. Rents have skyrocketed: some workers pay $700 a month just for a cot in a walk-in closet; some tradespeople will wrap insulation around their vehicles and camp out in -40 degree weather. Wages for many low-income residents have not increased to meet the costs.

Many of Canada’ First Nations people are tied to the land and rely on the wildlife for their survival. Wildlife is being tainted by toxins, and fish and game are often covered in tumors. Moose meat is now high in arsenic, a carcinogen.

Fishermen, downstream from the mines, have discovered hundreds of deformed fish, and among the native peoples who eat local duck, moose or fish, there are unusually high rates of renal failure, lupus, hyperthyroidism and other rare diseases.

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