Tar sands and their environmental effects

The change in landscape from tar sands mining. Image from: portlandrisingtide.org

Previously I have used images to convey the physical and environmental impacts the extraction of oil sands, or tar sands is having. The impacts are both local to Alberta, Canada and global. In this post I shall briefly outline what exactly these are.

1) The tar sands are being mined for oil, the use of which generates greenhouse gases. However, the method of extraction used with tar sands means the total greenhouse gas emissions is much higher than conventional extraction, therefore there will be a bigger impact on climate change. 1

2) As can be seen in the above picture, the landscape used to be boreal forest. Deforestation means there are fewer trees to take up carbon, one of the main greenhouse gases. I’m pretty sure everyone would prefer to look at boreal forest than the horrible landscape created by tar sands mining.

3) The destruction of the boreal forest also means the destruction of habitat for many species. Who knows how many animals have suffered as a consequence? Just the loss of one species in an area can have a profound impact on the way an ecosystem works.

4) Large amounts of water are diverted from the Athabasca River. It is then superheated and injected underground in order to make the bitumen fluid enough to pump to the surface. One estimate is that three barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil. This means less water available further downstream. 2

Tailings pond. Image from: http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155010 Original source: http://www.niehs.nih.gov, by Jiri Rezac

5) Tar sands create tailings ponds, which are effectively large pools of waste from the extraction process. 3 These ponds are so large they can actually be seen from space. The fact that they are filled with toxic waste is a hazard enough, but they are endangering the First Nation communities in the area. The toxic waste has been found leaking into the Athabasca River and therefore their water supply, and there have been reports of elevated occurrences of cancers and other diseases in the area. 4 It is of course everyone’s right to have safe drinking water, but this is obviously being contravened in this case. The tar sands are also damaging sacred areas and affecting cultural practices. If this is the effect on the human population, who knows how the wildlife in the local area is being affected.

So there we have it, a list of some of the environmental impacts the oil sands, or tar sands, are having on both a local and global scale. We can try and ignore what is going on in Alberta, Canada but in the end it will affect all of us. People in the UK should especially be made aware that the government are actually delaying legislation on fuel quality which would aim to discourage high emissions fuels such as oil from tar sands. 5 Shell and BP are already involved, and the Royal Bank of Scotland is one of the major investors. 1 Countries are obviously so eager to keep using oil and other fossil fuels, and delay the switch to renewable as long as possible, that they don’t care what the environmental impact is anymore. It’s truly a tragic situation and I hope this post will make people more aware of what is happening in Canada.

For more statistics and facts, such as the potential area of tar sands extraction could cover an area the size of England, the Rethink Alberta website has quite a few.

Sources:

1. http://www.no-tar-sands.org/what-are-the-tar-sands/

2. http://portlandrisingtide.org/campaigns/tar-sands-oil-exports/tar-sands-faq/

3. http://www.pembina.org/pub/2470

4. http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Boiling%20Point.pdf

5. http://www.no-tar-sands.org/campaigns/dirty-diplomacy-tar-sands-lobbying-and-the-fuel-quality-directive/

 

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