The Canadian Oil Sands Development: Management of Land, Air and Water Resources

By Poveda, Cesar A. | European Journal of Sustainable Development, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Canadian Oil Sands Development: Management of Land, Air and Water Resources


Poveda, Cesar A., European Journal of Sustainable Development


1. Introduction: A Brief History

One of the earliest documented accounts of the oil sands deposits dates back nearly 300 years when in 1719 a Cree named Wa-Pa-Su brought a sample to Henry Kelsey, manager of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at York Factory [Kelly, 2009]. Since, the need for meeting the demands of oil consumption has drastically increased -particularly after the industrial revolution- and precipitated the exploration and exploitation of alternatives to conventional oil; therefore, the third largest deposit after the convention oil in Saudi Arabia and heavy oil in Venezuela has become of regional, national, and international interest.

The deposits of oil sands are encountered in the province of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. Underlining 142,200 square kilometres (km2) the areas of Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River in northern Alberta contains 170.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil using current available technology and given certain economic conditions to make the exploitation feasible. If those conditions are met and new technology for extraction and processing is developed, there is potential for recovering 315 billion barrels1 of oil in the oil sands (Alberta Energy, 2015a; Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 2015a).

Using barrels as metric unit, about 80% of oil sands are recoverable using insitu processes and 20 % recoverable through surface mining (Alberta Energy, 2015b). The recovery process can done using two types of processes: surface mining and in-situ. About 3 per cent of the oil sands area can be recovered using surface mining technology while the other 97 per cent of the oil sands is too deep to be mined making necessary the use and development of in-situ recovery techniques (e.g., steam-assisted gravity drainage [SAGD], cyclic steam stimulation [CSS], vapour recovery extraction [VAPEX], cold heavy oil production with sand [CHOPS]) (Alberta Energy, 2015a).

Since Alberta's first oil sands mine opened in 1967 by the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company, now called Suncor Energy (Alberta Energy Regulator, 2015), the exploration and exploitation of the resource has exponentially increased with forecasted production indicating levels of over 587 thousand m3 (3.7 million bbls) per day by 2021 (Energy Resources Conservation Board, 2011) and 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030 (Canadian Energy Research Institute, 2014). Such rapid development in recent years has caught the attention of stakeholders due to the various environmental, social, economic, health, and other impacts the projects carry throughout their life cycles (Poveda & Lipsett, 2013; Honarvar, Rozhon, Millington, Walden, & Murillo, 2011a,b; Gosselin, Hrudey, Naeth, Plourde, Therrien, Van Der Kraak, & Xu, 2010). For the development and assessment of impacts of the oil sands projects, developers, researchers, governmental organizations, and other stakeholders cannot isolate the surface mining and in-situ processes since other activities may have equal or greater effects on the overall impact of the projects. Activities associated with development and operation of the oil sands include but not limited to provisional and permanent housing and buildings, roads, oil transportation and storage, upgrading and refining, reclamation, and capture and storage of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) such as CO2.

Alberta Energy (2012c) reports the mining operations have disturbed 715 square kilometres of boreal forest as of January 2013 and 66% of the total oil sands area has been leased to developing companies for extraction distributed in each oil sands area as follow: 44% of Peace River, 74% of Athabasca, and 55% of Cold Lake. Oil sands' surface mining operations and in-situ recovery processes continue supporting Canada's total oil production which represented 56% in 2012 and it is expected to remain growing yearly (National Energy Board, 2015). Surface mining operations represented 51% (889,000 barrels per day) of Alberta's oil sands production in 2011 while 49% (854,000) came from in-situ operated sites (Energy Resources Conservation Board, 2012). …

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