E&E Part 1: The World’s Dirtiest Oil

The Boreal Forest is the world’s largest terrestrial biome spanning three continents. In Canada, the Boreal Forest makes up about 60% of its land. In this section, there are over 1.5 million lakes and it is the home of the two of the biggest wetlands in the world. Canada’s Boreal Forest also is the habitat for many endangered species such as the caribou. It is also the location for the world’s largest reservoir of bitumen, or heavy crude oil. The industrialization of oil in certain parts of the Boreal Forest is on a scale that the world has never seen before.[1]

The Alberta Tar Sands are the largest deposits of crude oil in Canada. With the costs of oil on the rise, the Alberta Tar Sands are a great economic opportunity for Canada, but getting the oil out is a difficult process. As of right now there are two processes that are used to obtain the oil which are surface mining and in situ. Surface mining is just open-pit mining, dig everything up and keep the oil. In Situ is a method where extreme heat is applied to the oil in order to make it easier to pull out. Both of these methods are very intrusive to the environment and use inordinate amounts of land and water. The oil obtained produces the most greenhouse gases in the world giving it the nickname the World’s Dirtiest Oil. The size of these projects are so astronomically large that the comparisons seem so ridiculous. For example, one mining pit can roughly be compared to the size of an average metropolitan area. There are ten operating mines in Alberta and there is a plan for twenty more in the future.

The most damaging ecological impact, however, comes from the tailing ponds. After the oil goes through the refining process, the leftover deposits and chemicals are mixed with water and dumped into tailing ponds. These tailing ponds are full of dangerous toxins that can harm fish and birds. In fact, birds that land on the tailing ponds die because they quickly become covered in oil and cannot get out of the mixture. In 2008, 1,600 ducks died at one tailing pond and the company responsible, Syncrude, was given a $3 million fine. [3] A new study shows that leakage from these tailing ponds flows into the Athabasca River. [2] It is estimated that one single tailing pond can leak 6.5 million litres a day.[2] Even worse, the leakage from these tailing ponds has entered the ecosystem and is starting to affect humans. Down the Athabasca River is a place called Fort Chippewa which is the home of 800 Aboriginal people. The cancer rate in this area is 10 times higher than it is anywhere else in Canada. [1] The impact of these tailing ponds cannot be overstated. Now, tailing ponds cover 176 square kilometers, that’s roughly three times the size of Manhattan. The industrialization and destruction of the Boreal Forest is planned to continue with the addition of twenty more mines and other industrial projects such as pipelines. The total planned area for industrialization can be compared to the state of Florida in size. This does not bode well for the future ecology of the Boreal Forest.


  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/garth_lenz_images_of_beauty_and_devastation
  2. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/federal-study-says-oil-sands-toxins-are-leaching-into-groundwater-athabasca-river/article17016054/
  3. http://www.edmontonsun.com/2012/10/04/tailings-ponds-bird-deaths-in-northern-alberta-net-no-charges


  1. As a outdoorsman, the footprint left by people on previously untouched land concerns me. I try my best never to leave trash or anything like that. I know how intrusive attaining these resources can be, and it irritates me to no end that these corporations don’t abide by stricter regulations.

  2. Yes these oil corporations do need stricter safety regulations especially concerning tailing ponds. Its kind of crazy that its allowed to happen and practically nothing is being done about it. This type of oil mining can be done in Alaska, and plans are being made to start the mining process. I just hope that the United States is better at minimizing the impact than Canada is.

  3. Pingback: Final Project: Energy and Ecology – Tying Everything Together | New Writing, Post-Human: CS 2367.04 at OSU

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