Alberta Tar Sands Issues Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2721 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Energy

What happens next is the solvent condenses on the "cold walls of the vapor chamber and dissolves the bitumen"; in turn, the bitumen "drains with the solvent down to a production well" and next a surface facility does the separating of the propane and other gases (methane is one of the gases produced) from the bitumen. The estimate by N-Solv, the company launching the new strategy, is that the oil produced is 20% more valuable than the SAGD-produced bitumen (Chemical Engineering).

Clearly Canada has been planning to beef up its tar sands / oil sands production for many years. As the 5

th leading oil producing nation in the world Canada is relying heavily on tar sands oil.

(Courtesy Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) T

An article in the peer-reviewed Discover explains that including both Venezuela and Canada, there are a "…stunning 2 trillion barrels of sand oil reserves," albeit only about one-tenth of those resources are "recoverable with current technology" (Heger, 2010, p. 2). Heger's article explains that two tons of sand has to be processed in order to yield "a single barrel of oil" and moreover, each barrel of bitumen generates "more than 500 gallons of tailings" which is a liquid by-product "…laced with bitumen and other pollutants" (Heger, 2). The tailings are held in "giant ponds" -- many of which are located "…adjacent to the Athabasca River," a main water artery that runs through eastern Alberta.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Research Paper on Alberta Tar Sands Issues the Assignment

The ponds used for tailings cover about "50 square miles" and when the Environmental Defense group (an advocacy group in Canada) conducted an analysis of the ponds' impact, the report showed that "…every day around 3 million gallons of contaminated fluid leaks into the surrounding area" (Heger, 2). In addition, Heger cites a study by ecologist David Schindler (University of Alberta) in which Schindler and his colleagues found that "…over the course of four months, 11,400 tons of particulate matter -- including bitumen and cancer-causing poly-cyclic aromatic compounds -- were deposited within 30 miles…" of the refineries that Syncrude and Suncor use to separate the oil sands from the bitumen (Heger, 2). The result of those particulates means that fish are suffering deformities and mortalities and that the levels of those compounds found in rivers are "known carcinogens in humans" (Heger, 2).

In February, 2010, 1,600 water birds were found dead in one of Syncrude's tailings ponds near Fort McMurray; Syncrude was found guilty in court, Heger reports. A scholarly article in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology (Timoney, et al., 2010) points out that the area of the open pit mining for bitumen is "within a convergence zone of North American waterfowl flyways; millions of birds migrate through northeastern Alberta en route to and from local and distant breeding areas in Northern Alberta" (Timoney, 570). An estimated 35 species of water birds, and 29 other species of birds, have been observed at Syncrude's lease # 17), Timoney explains.

Meanwhile, avian mortality in the tailings ponds -- which total 120.6 square kilometers in area -- is far more significant that is reflected through the industry's self-reported data (Timoney, 569). The Syncrude estimate of birds found dead in the tailings ponds was 65 birds; the scientific estimates, however, are closer to 5,000 birds killed due to contact with carcinogens associated with tailings -- or by becoming covered in oil, which causes "increased metabolic rate, hypothermia" and from reduced insulation (Timoney, 569). The estimate for numbers of species of birds that have died in tailings ponds is 43, according to Timoney (569).

Notwithstanding the fact that the tar sands industry has, over the last thirty years, tried techniques to deter birds from landing in the tailings ponds -- like "propane canons and scarecrows…and floating and beach effigies" -- there remain serious environmental problems due to the fact that birds land when they approach headwinds, precipitation and low temperatures, and if those conditions occur over a pond with oily tailings, mortality can result (Timoney, 569).

Is this a Viable Energy Source?

The oil taken from the Canadian tar sands -- once the sand is removed and the bitumen is the end product -- is a viable energy source. The problem is that it releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than other crude oil products, and it causes pollution in the process of being extracted and separated from the sand, according to The New York Times. The cancer-causing compounds that have been detected in surrounding lakes are "…well beyond natural levels," Canadian researchers reported in a study released in January, 2013 (Austen, 2013).

The Canadian researchers analyzed sediment in six small lakes near the tar sands development, dating back 50 years. These lakes were near Fort McMurray, which is just south of the tar sands development. And albeit the industry spokespeople have been saying that contaminants found in the lake bottoms have "always been there," the researchers (working on an environmental project that was funded by the Canadian government) disagreed with those generalizations by the industry. The levels of cancer-causing compounds "…have been steadily rising since large-scale oil sands production began in 1978"; in fact there are "…2.5 to 23 times more PAHs in current sediment than in layers dating back to around 1960" (PAHs are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) (Austen, p. 1).


The ongoing production of tar sands oil is providing Canada and other countries with much needed crude oil, albeit there are environmental consequences that accompany the extraction and production and transporting of this controversial oil. Clearly there is a vital need for petroleum products on a global scale, and the Canadians are aggressively marketing this tar sands oil. From an ecological / environmental standpoint, several articles used in this paper point to negative impacts caused not just by the production of the oil, but because the tailings ponds are tempting for migratory birds to land. Moreover, the seepage from these tailings ponds -- noted by Austin in The New York Times -- may be leaking PAHs and other toxic chemicals downstream into other bodies of water. Moreover, opponents say the environmental degradation that is caused by scraping off massive portions of the boreal forest cannot be ignored, notwithstanding that the Alberta government claims only 1% of the forest is degraded. This will be an interesting situation for journalists and researchers to follow as the years go by and Canada continues to exploit the tar sands while environmental organizations seek to shut it down by pointing to the ecological problems associated with tar sands oil production.

Works Cited

American Petroleum Institute "Keystone XL Pipeline." Retrieved February 26, 2013, from

Austen, Ian. "Oil Sands Industry in Canada Tied to Higher Carcinogen Level." The New York

Times. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from

Chemical Engineering. "Solvent extraction method shows promise for recovering bitumen from tar sands." 118.9 (2011): p. 12.

Hall, William. "Canadian official brings 'facts' about tar sands to Portland." The Forecaster.

Retrieved February 26, 2013, from 2013.

Heger, Monica. "The End of Easy Oil." ', 31.7 (2010): 1-4.

Hirst, K. Kris. "Bitumen" Retrieved February 26, 2013, from 2013.

Podlubny, Joey. "Alberta's Oil Sands: Opportunity. Balance." Government of Alberta.

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How to Cite "Alberta Tar Sands Issues" Research Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Alberta Tar Sands Issues.  (2013, February 26).  Retrieved April 7, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Alberta Tar Sands Issues."  26 February 2013.  Web.  7 April 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Alberta Tar Sands Issues."  February 26, 2013.  Accessed April 7, 2020.