A Crude Reality: Canada's Oil Sands and Pollution

By Hopper, Anna | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Crude Reality: Canada's Oil Sands and Pollution


Hopper, Anna, Harvard International Review


The United States and Canada enjoy one of the largest trading partnerships in the world, with energy serving as a vital component of that relationship. Canada exports 1.96 million barrels of oil per day to the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. While Canada also supplies a large amount of clean hydropower to northern US regions, oil exports to the United States are both more substantial and, recently, more controversial. A large portion of Canadian oil coming to the United States is extracted from the oil sands in Alberta at high cost to the environment. With climate change becoming a vital global issue, many US leaders have begun to criticize Canada for sanctioning the dirty oil extraction process. Although this criticism has not yet translated into a serious decline in the US-Canada relationship, Canada will have a improve its environmental standards for oil sands in order to maintain healthy dealings with its southern neighbor.

With over 170 billion barrels of recoverable oil known, Alberta's oil sands contain the second largest proven reserves in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. But this Canadian oil is trapped in a tar-like substance known as bitumen. Until recently, these resources remained relatively untapped, due to the fact that extracting crude oil from the sands is much more expensive than drilling for conventional crude oil. However, with the recent spike in oil prices, extraction from the sands has become profitable, and oil companies are seizing the opportunity. In July 2008 they extracted 1.3 billion barrels of heavy crude oil per day from the sands. Unfortunately, the environmental costs of this extraction are just as high as the profit being made.

Because the oil in the sands is low grade crude, extracting and refining one barrel of its requires three times as much energy as producing a barrel of conventional oil, and releases three times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the same time, side effects of increasing oil extraction, including vast deforestation, also contributes to ever-growing emissions. The area is now the most rapidly increasing sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Furthermore, washing the bitumen to separate the oil and sand wastes over 12.7 billion cubic feet of water per year. This results in both a lock of local water resources and a large amount of water pollution. Reports have also surfaced of deformed fish in the toxic lakes surrounding the extraction area.

These huge environmental impacts are drawing the attention not only of environmentalists but also of leaders in the United States. Both 2008 US presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, spoke out against the purchase of environmentally dirty energy from sources like Alberta's oil sands. Arnold Schwarzengger, governor of California, signed an agreement to limit oil imports from producers with large carbon foot prints. Furthermore, 1,000 US mayors banded together and agreed to refuse imports of oil refined from areas with unusually high greenhouse gas emissions, like Alberta's oil sands. …

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