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What the Tar Sands Need

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December 31, 2007

What the Tar Sands Need

Processing requires massive inputs of water, energy, land, labour

by Dru Oja Jay

A Suncor processing plant, as seen from the Athabasca River. Photo: Dru Oja Jay


For each barrel of oil produced from the tar sands, between two and 4.5 barrels of water is needed. The water is used in the process of extracting bitumen from the naturally occurring the tar sand. The bitumen is later "upgraded" into synthetic crude oil.

In 2007, the government of Alberta approved the withdrawal of 119.5 billion gallons of water for tar sands extraction, of which an estimated 82 per cent came from the Athabasca River. Of that, extraction companies were only required to return 10 billion gallons to the river.

Most of the water used ends up in giant, toxic tailing ponds. As of 2006, tailing ponds covered 50-square kilometers of former boreal forest. By 2010, according to the Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, the industry will have generated 8 billion tons of waste sand and 1 billion cubic metres of waste water--enough to fill 400,000 olympic-sized swimming pools. Today, the largest human-made dam by volume of materials is the Syncrude tailing pond, a few kilometres from the Athabasca river.

The waste sand and water contain naphtha and paraffin, which are used in the extraction process, and oil leftovers like benzene, naphthenic acid and polyaromatic hydrocarbon, among others. Chemicals found in the tailing ponds are known to cause liver problems and brain hemorrhaging in mammals, and deformities and death in birds.

It is difficult to estimate the volume of toxins that make their way into the Athabsca, but downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan have reported high occurrences of rare cancers, lupus, multiple sclerosis and other diseases in recent years. Local fishermen have reported boils and deformities in fish. One winter, an oil slick was discovered under the ice. Syncrude later admitted that there had been a spill about 200 kilometres upstream.

The Athabasca also feeds Great Slave Lake, Deh Cho (the Mackenzie River) and vast northern watersheds. Water from the Athabasca flows all the way to the Arctic Ocean, and plays an essential role in the lives of indigenous communities and vast areas of Boreal forest.


Between digging up the tar sand, separating out the bitumen, and subsequently upgrading it to synthetic heavy crude, the extraction process requires vast amounts of energy. Because the tar sand and bitumen must be heated, about 1/6 of the energy provided by a barrel of oil is expended to extract one barrel of oil from tar sand.

Opponents of the tar sands say that burning a relatively clean fuel like natural gas to produce oil undermines any efforts to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions and transition to sustainable fuel sources. According to estimates from the Pembina Institute, the tar sands will account for 25 per cent of Canada's emissions by 2020, if Kyoto targets are reached.

The vast amounts of natural gas needed to extract millions of barrels of oil per day are leading to an anticipated shortage of supply. As a result, several energy megaprojects have been proposed.

Perhaps the most contentious of the proposals is the $7 billion Mackenzie Gas Project, a 1220 kilometre pipeline that runs along the Mackenzie River Valley, from the Arctic Ocean to Alberta's northern border. The project would connect the estimated 82 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Mackenzie River delta with the tar sands extraction plants to the south.

A second project, the Alaska Gas Pipeline would connect Alaska's north slope, home to an estimated 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with the Mackenzie valley route.

In part to make up for the natural gas supply taken up by the tar sands, Liquid Natural Gas terminals have been proposed in multiple locations on the west coast, east coast and along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The terminals would receive natural gas from tankers incoming from the Middle East, Russia and other overseas sources.

Natural gas supply is still not enough to keep up with anticipated growth, leading industry to explore options such as nuclear power. Alberta's first nuclear power plant has been proposed in the town of Peace River, though it has faced some local opposition.

Much to the dismay of environmentalists, there is also discussion of building new coal-burning power plants into future tar sands upgrading facilities.


The Conference Board of Canada predicted in 2006 that Alberta would face a shortage of 332,000 workers by 2025. The figure has been dismissed as exaggerated (it is based on the current rate of growth continuing unimpeded), but it seems to be an accurate reflection of the concern Alberta's industrial sector has shown recently.

That tar sands require a massive influx of labour is not disputed. Another estimate says that 20,000 new positions will be created in the tar sands over the next three years.

The signs of a labour shortage are already apparent in Alberta. Workers from Newfoundland and the Maritimes are offered flights to and from Fort McMurray for the duration of their work term. Grocery stores and fast food joints offer hourly wages in the double digits, and sometimes offer signing bonuses.

Increasingly, workers are brought in from countries like China and the Philippines. In 2006, Immigration Canada issued 15,172 new "temporary work permits" in Alberta, bringing the number of temporary workers to 22,392.

Temporary workers differ from immigrants in that they have no access to immigration services, and can effectively be sent home. According to some reports, the workers' temporary status leaves the door open to abuse. In one case, 12 men brought in by a trucking company were charged $500 per month to live in a three-bedroom bungalow.

The temporary foreign workers program has sparked a debate over the development of the tar sands.

"Most skilled workers would prefer to have 20 years of stable employment rather than seven or eight years of frantic development," writes Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour. If the pace of development was slowed, he writes, the need for temporary foreign workers would diminish.

Currently, development is heading in the opposite direction, with plans to increase production fivefold in the next twenty years. Regulations are being "streamlined," and plans are in place to further increase the number of foreign workers.


Open pit mining of tar sands, according to the Government of Alberta, involves "clearing trees and brush from a site and removing the overburden - the topsoil, muskeg, sand, clay and gravel - that sits atop the oil sands deposit." The "overburden" that is removed is up to 75 metres (about 25 stories) deep, and the underlying tar sands are typically between 40 and 60 metres deep.

After trees and brush are clearcut and either burned or sent to sawmills, the area is drained, and any local rivers are rerouted. Giant trucks then remove soil, clay and sand to uncover the prized tar sands. The sands are then removed and taken to plants to be processed. In the end, an average of four tonnes of earth must be removed to render one barrel of oil.

In addition to tailing ponds (see "Water"), vast amounts of waste sand are generated. These sands, still containing traces of bitumen and other chemicals, are inhospitable to life. Near Syncrude's extraction plant, for example, a vast desert stretches over the horizon. The expanse shows no signs of life, and carries the overpowering smell of asphalt.

The tar sands cover an estimated 141,000-square kilometres, of which approximately 3,400-square kilometres will be strip mined if currently-approved projects go forward.

Government regulations require the strip-mined land to be "reclaimed," and returned to a "stable, biologically self-sustaining state." According to Syncrude's web site, this means "productive capability at least equal to its condition before operations began." Syncrude envisions "a mosaic landscape dominated by productive forests, wetland areas alive with waterfowl and grasslands supporting grazing animals."

So far, Suncor says it has reclaimed 858 hectares, accounting for less than 9 per cent of the land it has mined since 1967. Syncrude has mined 18,653 hectares, a little under a fifth of which it says it has reclaimed.

None of the land, however, has been officially certified as reclaimed by the government. Both corporations have billboard advertisements in Fort McMurray proclaiming the success of their reclamation programs. In the end, it is not clear that land will be fully reclaimed, and government agencies have been criticized as lax in enforcing regulations.

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