Oil Sand Mining in Canada : Environmental Impacts and Regulations

Roughly 27% of all petroleum  imported into the US is from Canada[1]. Canada is the largest exporter of petroleum to the US. Roughly 49% of the total Canadian oil production is from heavy bitumen or oil sands [2]. Canadian production of petroleum from oil sands is very important for the US in order to reduce dependence on oil from unstable countries. It is also important for Canada because petroleum production by oil sand mining has made Canada a substantial net exporter of petroleum [3]. Hence, it is important to understand the environmental impacts of petroleum production from oil sands mining. (Photo credit  : [10])

Crude from oil sands is a thick mixture of sand, dirt, water and bitumen that is semi-solid at room temperature. Transporting and processing this thick mixture of bitumen has to be done at high temperatures. Thus, extracting petroleum from such heavy crude requires lot of energy and water and in turn will result in release of significant amount of greenhouse gases [4]. Overall, oil sands production is the single largest contributor of green house gases in Canada [10]. The process of mining and refining also causes significant environmental impacts, including huge emissions of global warming gases, destruction of wildlife habitat, and impacts to air and water quality [5]. It has been reported that the land reclaimed from oil sand mines are permanently affected and cannot be restored to their original quality. A study reveals that land reclamation has caused massive loss of peatlands and hence, the loss of their carbon storing potential  [6]. A report from Royal Society of Canada found the following environmental impacts [7] –
1) Contamination of downstream water and regional water supply
2) Contamination of ground water quality
3) Contamination and destruction of wildlife habitat from tailings pond
4) Impacts on ambient air quality and green house gas emissions

Apart from the above environmental impacts to Canada, the US is particularly in danger of high pollution from oil sands. The completion of the Keystone pipeline will enable the heavy crude to be refined more efficiently in the refineries of the Texas Gulf coast. This will lead to higher pollution in the already polluted Texas Gulf Coast jeopardizing air and water quality in places like the Houston Ship Channel [8] [9].

At the federal level, the Canadian National Energy Board has the authority to regulate the oil sands industry pursuant to three different environmental statutes viz. Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act [11]. At the provincial level, the provinces have legislation related to environmental protection. In Alberta, where most of the oil sand production is concentrated, the government has enacted the Oil Sands Conservation Act (Alberta Regulation 76/88) to regulate the oil sands industry [12]. Critics of the regulations say that existing regulation is not effective in protecting the environment but more regulation is necessary [13]. Also, the studies that have been initiated to study affects of oil sands on specific wildlife/regions have not been completed in time and hence have not been effective [10].

[2] http://www.neb.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rnrgynfmtn/sttstc/crdlndptrlmprdct/stmtdprdctn-eng.html
[3] http://www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/RSC_ExP_ExecutiveSummary_ENG_Dec14_10_FINAL_v5.pdf
[4] http://business-ethics.com/2011/05/23/7070-coming-to-america-tar-sands-oil-from-canada/
[5] http://www.sierraclub.org/energy/factsheets/tarsands.asp
[6] http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/03/06/1117693108.full.pdf+html
[7] http://www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/RSC_ExP_ExecutiveSummary_ENG_Dec14_10_FINAL_v5.pdf
[8] http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/03/13/tar-sands-to-texas-will-heavy-crude-mean-more-pollution/
[9] http://business-ethics.com/2011/05/23/7070-coming-to-america-tar-sands-oil-from-canada/
[10] http://dspace.cigilibrary.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/23069/1/Oil%20Sands%20Fever%20The%20Environmental%20Implications%20of%20Canadas%20Oil%20Sands%20Rush.pdf?1
[11] http://blakes.com/english/legal_updates/reference_guides/Enviro_AB_Oil_Sands.pdf
[12] http://www.ercb.ca/docs/requirements/actsregs/osc_reg_076_88_oil_sands.pdf



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2 responses to “Oil Sand Mining in Canada : Environmental Impacts and Regulations

  1. First thanks for your blog. It’s very informative and the references are helpful as well.

    I agree with you that the environment impact should be taken into consideration when we use the oil and gas from Canada, the largest exporter of petroleum to the US. I think the environmental impacts need to be evaluation in more detail. Additionally, the specific regulations are necessary. Following aspects in my opinion are important: (1) GHG emissions; (2) ambient air quality; (3) regional water supply; (4) drinking water quality; (5) population health; (6) feasibility of reclamation; (7) landscape disruption; and (8) destruction of wildlife habitat.

    Another thing I’m thinking about is that who need to be in charge of the environmental impacts. Should American customs be responsible for this? In the class, we discussed Carbon Tax and Cap and Trade. As the close relation between Canada and America, I think we could try to do some experiments to find the best way to limit the GHG emission. As Dr. Webber said, the world cannot tackle climate change without active involvement and leadership from the US.

    • katelyncolwell

      I think that having Canada as our largest crude import country is a good thing for the US. It doesn’t weaken our national security and transportation costs are cheaper, relatively. But as mentioned above, there are some major consequences of importing oil sands.
      Right now the two main methods of oil sand extraction are open-pit mining and in situ. Open-pit mining ruins the landscape and in situ mining is very water and energy intensive. But over the past decade, the oil industry has made broad strides in advancing the technology used in oil sand extraction to make it a more environmentally-friendly process. Suncor, the first company to mine the oil sands, has found a way to recycle up to 90% of the water used in in situ methods of extraction. They call it their “Zero liquid discharge” method [1]. Also, the Canadian think-tank, Pembina Institute, along with Suncor have found ways to minimize the effect of tailing ponds. [1]

      Maybe by focusing less on the policy aspect of the Albertan oil sands issue, and more on improving the technology used in extraction, we can skip all of the red-tape and the US will have faster access to this vast oil potential.

      [1] http://www.good.is/post/can-technology-make-tar-sands-oil-less-dirty/

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