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The crude truth behind Canada’s oil sands

Alberta has dug a huge environmental hole. What is their plan to get out?

Canada is one of the world’s largest oil extractors: we have one of the largest oil deposits and the largest oil sands deposit in the world, but that comes at a cost.

Oil Mining is very complex in Canada unlike in other countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s find an oil reservoir underground and drill until they hit oil. When they hit oil a pipe is put into the hole to keep the earth from collapsing on it. From there, they simply pump the oil out of the reservoir and into a tank to transport it to a refinery where it is processed and distributed all around the world. Compared to the extraction process in Canada’s oil sands, that is a walk into the park.

In Canada, oil mining is a much more complicated process. Most of our oil reserves are located in natural deposits called oil sands. Oil sands in Fort McMurray are composed of petroleum mixed with sand, clay and water which gives the oil a thick, dry and pasty consistency, much like wet sand.

In order to extract the oil from the ground, first oil companies must clear all of the vegetation and dirt above the ground. This is not only time consuming, it also damages the environment greatly. Removing the trees and bushes displaces animals from their natural habitat. This can cause many negative reactions including death. After clearing the space, large construction vehicles such as excavators dig the petroleum-sand mixture and place it in transportation trucks for further processing. This method can only be used to extract at most 20% of the oil in the deposit, everything else is too deep into the ground to reach. For what’s left, workers inject high velocity steam and water, superheated to nearly 300 degrees celsius for two to three weeks using a machine called a steam injector. The residual heat in the oil reserve will make the natural petroleum less viscous, which allows pumps to be set in place to extract the hot oil. This process is expensive, and when the price of oil fluctuates, the cost of extracting the oil can outweigh the cost of selling it.

The process required for getting oil out of oil sands produces a huge amount of toxic waste, compared to conventional oil extraction. Much of this waste is in the form of fluid “tailings.” The total volume of fine fluid tailings reported by the mine operators for 2013 was nearly a billion cubic meters. This material is stored in massive tailings ponds which are an environmental hazard. Nothing can live in the toxic soup of a tailings pond. All the living organisms in and around the pond die of poisoning.

The process also uses a huge amount of water. The water used in refineries is rarely reused and returned into the natural cycle.

Yet another issue is the contaminated air from refineries which is released into the atmosphere, which thins the ozone layer, and contributes to climate change. This also further affects the surrounding wildlife.

Some First Nations groups do not like the idea of an expanding oil industry without a plan to mitigate the environmental impact. The Mikisew Cree First Nation consultant said the the expansion of the oil industry is “risky” and “irresponsible.”

The Alberta Energy regulator has estimated that cleaning up the oil sands would cost nearly $260 billion tax dollars.

Petroleum companies are required to return the land they use for refineries, pipelines and other facilities to its natural state, but the law is rarely enforced; for example, when one oil company went bankrupt, they left behind 4000 facilities with no plan to clean it up.

Currently, there are solutions to the tailing ponds that can help our environment return to its natural state but they are energy intensive and very costly. Researchers at the University of Alberta such as Gamal El-Din are developing cheaper and equally effective solution for the ponds. He is optimistic about their project, claiming confidently that “We will be able to make that happen,” however, “It will take a few years.”

Oil mining has gone on for so many years and created so many problems that it is going to cost billions of dollars and the longer we wait, the more expensive and damaging it will be. If the cost rises too high, will the clean up ever occur? The environmental impact that the oil sands have created is so large that it will affect Canada and the Earth forever.

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