The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Oil Sands Facts Not Often Disclosed

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 13, 2009

During the past several days, I've written extensively about Canada's oil sands, how they are produced, and the environmental programs that convert the disturbed land into meadows, forests and lakes. Today, in my final post about last week's oil sands tour, I want to provide you with some basic facts that often don't appear in news articles about oil sands development.

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Alberta Oil Sands Location Tour-- Aug. 7, 2009 -- Fort McMurray, Alberta: The tour group wearing their NOMEX suits at ConocoPhillips' Surmont site.

First, the maximum area identified for oil sands mining is slightly more than 1 percent of Alberta's boreal forest area, which encompasses 147,100 square miles. Put another way, the oil sands exist in an area about the size of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, with the amount of land disturbed for mining smaller than the City of Toronto. By law, all disturbed land must be reclaimed. So far the oil and natural gas industry has planted more than 7.5 million trees as part of the ongoing reclamation efforts.

The Albertan government reviews and approves the monitoring and containment systems of tailings ponds and conducts on-site assessments and inspections. Syncrude and other companies in Alberta use the noise from propane-fired cannons to discourage birds from landing in the ponds. Tailings from oil sands mining include small amounts of bitumen, clay, sand, water, organic compounds, salt and trace metals. In the ponds, the sand and clay settle and the water is reclaimed and recycled.

Extraction, processing, transportation and consumption of oil from Alberta's oil sands is estimated produce fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than Venezuelan heavy oil. Alberta's oil sands account for less than one-tenth of one percent of global GHG emissions and supply almost 2 percent of the world's oil.

Alberta has the second largest proven oil reserve in the world behind Saudi Arabia. The United States imports more oil from Canada than any other country, and about half of the imported Canadian oil is derived from oil sands.

Oil sands projects must comply with strict legislation and standards aimed at maintaining the health and integrity of Alberta's air, water, land and wildlife, including the reduction of GHG emissions. Air quality in the oil sands region is monitored 24/7. None of the water used to process oil sands is allowed to be discharged directly in the Athabasca River, and there have been no detectable changes in surface water quality due to oil sands mining.

Only 20 percent of the oil sands is suitable for mining; the rest must be extracted via the in situ method, which involves much less land disturbance. In-situ sites can be reclaimed much quicker than surface mines, and there is no need for tailings ponds.

Perhaps most importantly, Canada's oil sands are a secure source of crude oil right on our doorstep. America's demand for oil is expected to grow over the next several years, so it makes sense to tap into this energy-rich resource. Oil sands development is providing thousands of high-paying jobs to American workers, bringing much-needed energy to the United States and improving U.S. energy security.

Read our primer for more information about oil sands.