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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Tarred and feathered: Canada’s very public dispute over future of tar sands intensifies


10 min read

Distant view of crane and machinery working in industrial oil sands, with smoking chimney stacks to left Photo: Adobe Stock
Canada’s tar sand developments support thousands of jobs but face significant criticism by environmentalists worldwide – will the move towards cap-and-trade mark a significant pivot in the country’s climate strategy?

Photo: Adobe Stock

Canada’s oil sands (also known as tar sands) present a paradox between economic growth and environmental stewardship. As some of the world’s largest reserves of heavy crude oil, they are integral to meeting global energy demands. In 2022, the tar sands produced an average of 3.2mn boe/d, according to S&P Global. However, their environmental impact, characterised by significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and extensive landscape disruption, has sparked international concern and domestic debate. Sara Siddeeq examines the key issues around this valuable but controversial fossil energy resource.

The history of the Athabasca oil sands development in Canada is a tale of technological evolution and environmental challenges. From early bitumen extraction methods to today’s advanced in-situ techniques, each advancement has aimed to increase efficiency but has also raised environmental concerns. Innovations have reduced water and energy use, yet the ecological footprint remains substantial, prompting a need for a delicate balance between technological progress and environmental preservation.


At the heart of this challenge lies the need to reconcile Canada’s environmental ambitions with the economic realities of an industry that is a linchpin of the province of Alberta’s economy and a significant contributor to the national GDP. While the tar sands account for approximately 10% of Canada’s total GHG emissions (according to Natural Resources Canada), they generate on average $54bn in economic activity annually. In 2020 alone, its operations supported 166,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country.


Environmental opposition
Environmentalists have repeatedly criticised the Canadian government for allowing oil sands operations to continue. One of their primary concerns is the significant use of water in tar sands operations, which not only consumes a considerable portion of the Athabasca River’s flow but also leads to contamination of water sources. Despite measures to conserve and store water, major concerns remain about the leakage of toxic substances from tailings ponds into groundwater and surface water, posing a risk to both the environment and human health.


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