Mining in the Boreal - Tar Sands

A key area of controversy over mining in the boreal region is the exploitation of tar (or oil) sands, which are areas with sand or sandstone saturated with bitumen, a viscous form of petroleum, which can be mined and processed to produce oil.  Tar sands are extracted by either surface (open pit) mining or in-situ extraction. For surface mining, areas are first cleared of trees, bogs are drained, and underlying soils are removed to reveal oil sand deposits. In-situ extraction involves drilling wells to reach deposits that are located too deep to be surface mined economically. For this type of extraction, steam is pumped down the wells to separate the bitumen from the sands, and the bitumen is then pumped to the surface. 

 World Resources Institute

While oil sands are found in various regions of the world, the largest deposits of tar sands in the world are in Alberta, Canada – mostly located beneath boreal forestland. Oil sands in Alberta underlie an area of approximately 140,000 km​2​, representing approximately 1.8 trillion barrels of crude bitumen, of which 170 billion barrels is thought to be extractable with today’s technology (compared to an estimated total of 4.3 billion barrels of crude oil reserves throughout Canada). 

Tar sands represent an estimated 40% of Canada’s oil production, and 20% of the U.S.’s oil annual consumption comes from Canadian sources (a considerable portion of which originates form tar sands).

Despite their importance economically and as an energy source, tar sands have been shown to generate considerable environmental impacts on climate, water, air quality and land ecosystems. Surface mining has the biggest impact on land ecosystems, as it requires clearing and excavation of large areas, red

istribution of materials (soils, biomass, etc.) and diverts water from rivers and wetlands, altering natural landscapes. Extraction processes from tar sands are energy and water-use intensive, and additional ecological impacts come from tailing ponds (which are engineered dam and dyke systems used to store residual water, sand, clay and oil mixtures leftover from the mining process), increasing the potential for contamination of groundwater resources.

While in-situ mines affect less of the land surface, boreal forest systems are still fragmented by infrastructure development, such as roads, pipelines, and processing facilities. In general, tar sand mining can cause habitat fragmentation and eliminate wildlife habitat for animals such as waterfowl, woodland caribou, lynx, marten, fisher, wolverine, as well as a number of warblers and woodland bird species. According to data from the Global Forest Watch, 775,000 hectares of land in the Alberta tar sands region have been deforested or degraded between the years 2000 and 2013, and more than 12.5 million hectares have experienced habitat disruption, largely due to tar sands development.

Two of Alberta’s earliest tar sands mining operations, Suncor and Syncrude, established in 1967 and 1978 respectively, have been gradually decommissioned, with reclamation experiments taking place since the 1990s to restore habitat and ecosystem function. These two companies claim to have restored 9% and 22%, respectively, of the land used from their operations. However, these statistics are self-reported, and there are no specific reclamation standards for tar sand mines, making it difficult to validate whether successful reclamation has taken place or not. As of 2012, only 104 hectares of land (0.2% of the total area disturbed) had been certified as reclaimed by the Albertan government.

 Two of Alberta’s earliest tar sands mining operations, Suncor and Syncrude, established in 1967 and 1978 respectively, have been gradually decommissioned, with reclamation experiments taking place since the 1990s to restore habitat and ecosystem function. These two companies claim to have restored 9% and 22%, respectively, of the land used from their operations. However, these statistics are self-reported, and there are no specific reclamation standards for tar sand mines, making it difficult to validate whether successful reclamation has taken place or not. As of 2012, only 104 hectares of land (0.2% of the total area disturbed) had been certified as reclaimed by the Albertan government. 


Sources:

Alberta’s Oil Sands. (2013). Oil Sands Reclamation. Alberta Government. http://oilsands.alberta.ca/FactSheets/Reclamation_FSht_Sep_2013_Online.pdf

CAPP. (n.d.). Tailings Ponds. Retrieved from Canada Association of Petroleum Products website: http://www.oilsandstoday.ca/topics/Tailings/Pages/default.aspx

EIS. (2012) About Tar Sands. Retrieved from Oil Shale & Tar Sands Programmatic EIS website: http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/

Grant, J., Dyer, S. & Woynillowicz, D. (2009). Clearing the Air on Oil Sands Myths. The Pembina Institute. http://www.pembina.org/reports/clearing-the-air-report.pdf

Greenpeace. (2010). Tar Sands and Boreal Forest. http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/Global/canada/report/2010/4/BorealForest_FS_Footnote_rev_4.pdf

Hance, J. (2009). New report: boreal forests contain more carbon than tropical forest per hectare. Mongabay. Retrieved from: http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1112-hance_boreal.html

Kimbrough, L. & Erickson-Davis, M. (2014). More trouble with tar sands: oil extraction leading to big forest loss in Alberta. Mongabay. Retrieved from: http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0829-gfrn-kimbrough-morgan-tar-sands.html

Petersen, R., Sizer, N. & Lee, P. (2014). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. Retrieved from World Resources Institute website: http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/07/tar-sands-threaten-world%E2%80%99s-largest-boreal-forest

Pembina Institute. (n.d.) Alberta’s Oilsands. Retrieved from: http://www.pembina.org/oil-sands/os101/alberta#footnote2_qegn7t

Pembina Institute. (n.d.) Mining vs In Situ. Retrieved from: https://www.pembina.org/reports/mining-vs-in-situ.pdf

Sierra Club Canada. (n.d.). Tar Sands & the Boreal Forest. http://www.sierraclub.ca/en/tar-sands/publications/tar-sands-boreal-forest

Tenenbaum, D. J. (2009). Oil Sands Development: A Health Risk Worth Taking? Environmental Health Perspectives, 117(4), A150–A156.

Yeh, S., Zhao, A., Hogan, S., Brandt, A.R., Englander, J.G., Beilman, D.W., & Wang, M.Q. (2015). Past and Future Land Use Impacts of Canadian Oil Sands and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Davis, CA. UC Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies.