Oil Sands Mining: The Death of the Canadian Wilderness
By Erin

Canada is home to one of North America's longest undammed rivers, the Athabasca. It flows northward through Alberta for 955 miles, from Jasper National Park to Wood Buffalo National Park. As the Athabasca River approaches Wood Buffalo, it passes the McClelland Wetland Complex. This complex contains 12 sink holes, McClelland Lake and an ancient bog that is home to various rare plants, including five carnivorous species. However, the growing interest in oil sands mining poses a serious threat to the survival of this ecosystem. This area was protected from such devastation until the late 1990s, when Syncrude—the world's largest oil sands company—squeezed its greasy, greedy fingers around the neck of Alberta's politicians. Now, 50 percent of the McClelland complex could be destroyed to extract oil sands.

Oil sands—considered an "alternative" to petroleum—are extracted by strip-mining large amounts of land, leaving gaping holes in the Earth. The sand underneath contains bitumen, a thick substance that can be turned into oil. First, the sand is treated with water and caustic soda to make it into a sludge-like material. It is then mixed with hot water, and the bitumen is skimmed off the top. Because it is still so thick, the bitumen has to be mixed with liquid or gas petroleum, and the resulting substance is upgraded to crude oil. This process not only wreaks havoc on the local environment, it also produces millions of pounds of greenhouse gases, uses a lot of water and, most importantly, doesn't bring us any closer to the end of oil dependency.

In the last century, water levels in the Athabasca River have decreased by 20 percent. Oil sands extraction and processing is exacerbating this problem. Each day, between two and five million gallons of water are used to produce one million barrels of crude oil. While current operations use 92 billion gallons of water every year, this volume will only increase as oil sands production becomes more widespread. Most of the water used for these operations comes from the Athabasca River, and this removal will have life-threatening effects on the fish that inhabit these waters. Due to the combined effects of global warming and the oil sands industry, the river is at risk of drying up in the Fall. With water levels naturally lower in the Winter, fish populations may barely survive, if at all.

The water used for oil sands production is too contaminated to be released back into the ecosystem, so it ends up in toxic ponds. In an attempt to recycle some of this water, oil sands companies have developed another way to extract the oil. It is a process called steam-assisted gravity drainage, an "in situ" method that processes the oil sands in their original location prior to extraction. Most of the sands suitable for oil extraction—up to 90 percent—lie too far beneath the surface to mine. To solve this problem, the in situ method implements long drills that pump steam into an upper hole to melt the tar, which then travels to a lower hole, where the bitumen is pumped to the surface. This process does not decrease the environmental impact of oil sands mining but merely hides it underground in deep wells or landfills. These in situ operations may not rip up the landscape, but they do create an equally devastating puzzle of roads, test holes and pipes.

As climate chaos increases throughout the world, it is counterproductive to invest millions of dollars into oil sands mining projects. The process of extracting this oil emits three times as many greenhouse gases as conventional oil production. In 2002, under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions six percent by 2012. Since 1990, however, emissions have increased 35 percent. Governments and corporations claim that they are devising new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but their "alternatives" still won't be enough to reverse the major damage that they have inflicted on the environment thus far.

Companies involved in oil sands mining emphasize the measures they are taking to reclaim the lands that they have so viciously destroyed. For example, what was an oil sands mine 20 years ago outside Edmonton, Alberta, is now a picturesque landscape, scattered with young trees and populated by wild bison. However, the water there is so unsuitable for waterfowl that propane-powered cannons are set off every few seconds to scare away any birds that might attempt to land in the contaminated wetlands. Two of the largest oil sands companies, Syncrude and Suncor, have claimed that 20 percent of the land they have mined has been restored. They claim that the boreal ecosystems that were destroyed have been restored in a mere 20 years. In reality, it will take 300 years for these forests to become healthy again; the wetlands may never return. To add fuel to the fire, last Fall, the Alberta government released the Mineable Oil Sands Strategy (MOSS), which stated that thousands of miles of boreal forests and wetlands were only useful for extracting oil. Because of public protest, MOSS is undergoing a one-year review.

To the naked eye, Alberta's wilderness still seems awe-inspiring, with its lush green forests, white-capped mountains, glacier-fed lakes and rivers, and its native flora and fauna. The terrifying reality is that Alberta's 410,000 square miles—inhabited by only three million people—is steadily succumbing to the mercy of those who want to exploit it for financial gain. Logging, gas development and now the rise of oil sands mining has reduced Alberta's natural forests to 40 percent of their original range. The areas that still remain are littered with industrial activities. The caribou, grizzly bear, lynx, martin and other species that call this land home are very sensitive to human interference. The devastation that further oil sands mining will create is unfathomable. Drastic measures must be taken to ensure the survival of this precious ecosystem. We must not let greed and corruption rob us of the irreplaceable biodiversity that makes up the remaining Canadian wilderness.

For more information, contact The Pembina Institute , POB 7558, Drayton, Alberta, T7A 1S7 Canada.

This is Erin's first article for the Earth First! Journal. She has family living in Alberta, Canada. Currently she is living in California at Yosemite National Park but will soon return to live in Tucson. Erin enjoys dogs and the outdoors above all else in this world.

© Earth First! Journal September-October 2006