The Tar Sands: Fueling Controversy


Home / The Tar Sands: Fueling Controversy

Oil is the engine of the world economy. Are the impacts of new development too high? Image Credit: jkpics

Petroleum fuels the world. From ocean-based rigs to new developments in the oil sands, petroleum also fuels local and global controversy about the ways in which we extract and use fossil fuels.

To many, oil extraction brings to mind an ecstatic oilman, gleefully watching as free-flowing oil gushes from the ground. While some oil flows freely, bitumen is more prosaic. It doesn’t flow well unless it is diluted with other hydrocarbons. This slow, sandy petroleum product is also known as tar, since bitumen is a slow, molasses-like substance. This is what makes up the oil sands.

How Did the Tar Sands Form?

Like other petroleum products, the tar sands began a long, long time ago. Once, an ocean covered the Canadian province of Alberta. Tiny creatures lived in the ocean sands. When these creatures died, the heat of the ocean and years of silt accumulation turned them into oil. Today, the oil sands cover over 87,000 square miles of Alberta’s Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River regions. After Saudi Arabia, the oil sands may be the largest oil reserve in the world.

Oil sands development in Alberta. Image Credit: Jasonwoodhead23

Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development

Why are ancient ocean creatures so controversial? Oil sands are relatively difficult to access. Layers of sand and rock covered those ancient ocean denizens. Over time, boreal forests grew over top of the rock and sand. The forests grew to house rivers and lakes, and animals walked on top of the hidden bitumen.

In Canada’s boreal forests, there are almost 3000 square miles of mineable oil sands. Getting to the oil sands means removing the forests. It means that large scale, heavy equipment moves into the landscape, removing the plants, impacting animal populations, and damaging soil, water and air. Shifting Sands documents the work in the oil sands with photos of the oil sands landscapes during and after this process. Some consider this to be a cost of oil production. Others consider this to be an environmental disaster.

Oil and Water: Extracting Oil From Oil Sands

Tar sand mining devastates the environment: Image by Jungbim

While people have been intrigued by the possibilities of oil extraction from the tar sands for many years, it was not until 1963 that Suncor created a large-scale commercial extraction operation near Fort McMurray, Canada. This is because making liquid fuel from oil sands is a lot more challenging than extracting free-flowing oil from the ground. Tar sands are not neat. They are a sticky mass of oil, water, and sand.  Removing oil from sand and water is difficult, and the refining process uses two to four times the amount of energy that it takes to create a usable fuel product from conventional oil wells. It also uses vast amounts of water. In October 2011, the European Union moved to ban fuels that do not meet their minimum environmental standards. The oil from the tar sands would fall under the ban.

The Controversy of Development

Above all of these controversies lies the one that may matter the most: the need to develop new sources of energy; sources that are less damaging to global ecosystems.

Of course, renewable energy sources also come with their ecological problems. As the world gradually shifts to other sources of fuel, is it worthwhile to pursue sources of oil that pose increasing environmental challenges?


Government of Canada. Exploring Oil Sands Science. Accessed November 3, 2011.

The Globe and Mail. Shifting Sands.  Accessed November 3, 2011.

Harvey, Fiona. The Guardian. October 4, 2011. Oil Sands Imports Could Be Banned Under EU Directive. Accessed November 3, 2011.

The Oil Sands Developers Group. Oil Sands Facts. Accessed November 3, 2011.


Leave a Comment