You might have wondered if oil sands are more sustainable than drilling for oil.
Since oil sands are finite resources, they are unsustainable right off the bat.
Moreover, oil sands can cause huge amounts of pollution while also contributing to deforestation.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of oil sands.
1. How Do Oil Sands Affect the Environment?
Oil sands are deposits of sand, clay, water, and bitumen, which is an oil that can be manufactured into synthetic crude oil.
Oil sands are non-renewable, so relying on them furthers the reliance on unsustainable fuel sources.
In 2020, almost 80% of the energy use worldwide was made from fossil fuels.
Given that energy use increased from 62,949 TWh (terawatt-hours) in 1969 to 173,340 TWh in 2019, this is concerning.
Oil sands are usually harvested via open pit mining or in-situ extraction, which entails drilling wells and forcing steam through them to help pump the bitumen to the surface.
Both of these methods can release pollution and physically degrade the environment.
As a result, sourcing fuel from oil sands has been linked with deforestation.
This is bad for the environment as trees are one of the biggest defenses against climate change, as trees absorb CO2 during their lifetime, much of which is released back into the environment after they are cut down.
Plus, deforestation also displaces wildlife that may struggle to survive in new areas or are considered pests should they enter towns and cities.
Extracting bitumen from oil sands also destroys the habitat of countless flora and fauna.
For example, the increasing number of oil sands in the boreal forest in Canada can disrupt migrating birds and reduce populations due to a loss of breeding habitats, food, and shelter.
It is predicted that the bird mortality rates could fall between 8,000 birds to more than 100,000 birds as they drown in oily water.
There is also the risk of pipes transporting bitumen leaking, polluting the surrounding land and water.
In 2019, more than 1,456,895 liters of oil spilled in Keystone, North Dakota.
In 2010, 3,785,411 liters (one million gallons) of tar sand oil was spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan after a pipeline ruptured.
Spills such as these can pose health issues for humans and animals who come into contact with the oil.
2. Do Oil Sands Contribute to Climate Change?
Oil sand mining does contribute to climate change.
In some cases, they are actually a bigger contributor than other sources, as using oil sands rather than conventional oil can increase greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.
This is highly concerning as, at the end of 2020, the output from oil sands was greater than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to grow further, at least in the short term.
The carbon dioxide emissions can vary per oil sand, so it’s hard to give an exact figure.
Most oil sand production centers in Canada and studies found different figures for each.
For example, the hourly CO2 emissions from Syncrude Mildred Lake in Canada was 1,650,000 kilograms ± 134,000 kilograms.
Meanwhile, SUN was producing 1,220,000 kilograms ± 138,000 kilograms per hour.
Oils sands from Canadian National Resources Ltd Horizon could be emitting 538,000 ± 68,000 kilograms per hour.
Finally, Shell Albian and Jackpine could emit 423,000 kilograms ± 55,000 kilograms per hour.
While sourcing a barrel of bitumen from the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd’s Peace River site could emit 197 kilograms of CO2e.
Plus, the extraction process when sourcing fuel from oil sands does not just release CO2 but also methane.
Although methane does not survive as long as CO2 does in the atmosphere, it is more potent at trapping heat, increasing the contribution of oil sands to climate change.
3. What Are the Benefits of Oils Sands?
There are not many, if any, environmental benefits to using oil sands.
From a financial standpoint, they are a source of employment that stimulates the economy.
Although oil sands can contribute to deforestation, there are almost 4.5 million hectares of protected land surrounding the oil sands in this region.
One of the concerns about oil sands is that once the bitumen is extracted, the area is not restored, but the Government of Alberta requires companies to repair and reclaim the land that was used.
Legal cleanup requirements are not unique to oil sands.
Coal mines are also obligated to restore the land was the mine has been depleted. However, research found many companies do not fulfill this.
4. How Do Oil Sands Compare to Drilling for Oil?
Oil sand mines are not greener than drilling oil.
Both oil sands and oil mills can cause environmental destruction and pollution and interfere with the ecosystem.
There are also reports of spills from oil sands and from drilling for oil.
Since bitumen is not the same as oil, it sinks into waterways when it spills, whereas oil generally floats.
Both of these are still incredibly polluting and harmful to wildlife, but it could mean that oil is easier to clean up.
As mentioned earlier, a barrel of bitumen from the CNRL’s Peace River site could release 197 kg of CO2e.
Like with oil sand mining, the emissions per barrel of regular oil can vary.
In 2015, a barrel of oil equivalent from Suncor emitted 447 kg of CO2e, which was the highest.
Companies such as Husky, Petrobas, and Lukoil emitted more than 470 kg of CO2e per barrel, and Chevron, Occidental, and Hess more than 450 kg of CO2e.
Meanwhile, in the UK in 2021, the emissions from oil increased, partially due to pipeline outages, meaning that per barrel of oil, 23kg CO2/boe (barrel of oil equivalent) was released.
So, in some circumstances, drilling for oil is more polluting than oil sand mining.