Tar Sand Mining in Alberta, Canada: Implications and Suggested Action Essay

Tar Sand Mining in Alberta, Canada: Implications and Suggested Action


Oil is a liquid variant of petroleum generally gathered through source rocks interspersed in various stages of the geological cycle (Gluyas & Swarbrik, 2004). It is commonly termed as the black gold due to its price. The oil demand in numerous countries worldwide is immense, hence making the global oil market one of the most prominent markets in terms of its effects to the economy in a wide scale.

The development of the oil industry took a long while before it became established. The turning point of the said industry, however, was after the Second World War, wherein several countries, including Saudi Arabia, United States, and Canada, have begun to extensively produce oil from their local sources (Parra, 2004). As the world entered a more productive and peaceful way of life, the need for oil to fuel machines and instruments to support the changes has increased. Hence, there was a global increase in oil production, even from several third world countries (Parra, 2004).

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However, the problem was that oil sources are not infinite. Together with the continuous demand for oil, the supply has constantly diminished. The current oil refining technology is very efficient, having produced several products such as Gasoline and Jet Fuels; almost nothing usable goes to waste (Gary & Handwerk, 2001). Yet, even with this efficient procedure, the problem of supply is not solved. Hence, the option is to find other possible sources.

One such new source of oil is the tar sand. Unlike the classical form of collecting oil, which is acquired in its natural form, the tar sands require further processing. Even with this obstacle and other concerns and implications, surviving through the dwindling global oil supply is a greater challenge for the economy. Therefore, various countries, especially Canada, have been focusing on the utilization of tar sands to satiate the oil supply.


In Alberta lies one of Canada’s premiere locations for tar sand operations. Canada has created such a highly developed and advanced way of utilizing tar throughout its course. As a testament to this, in a global sense, Canada has become the world leader in terms of producing oil through such a source; in fact, around 40% of the oil that they produce is generated through tar sands (Argonne National Laboratory [ANL], n.d.).

Tar sands or oil sands are converted into oil through a rigorous process. As opposed to drilling and the classical methods of oil gathering, tar sands are mined. Machinery and vehicles such as trucks are used to dig up sand deposits and carry it to specialized facilities (ANL, n.d.). The industrial vehicles are required in order to transport as much sand in a single trip. These vehicles make the whole process faster and in effect, more efficient and cost-effective.

At the extraction facilities, the tar sands are processed in order to obtain its usable constituent. The bitumen is the important part of the tar sand, since it is equivalent to the raw oil from the common oil gathering procedures. In order to extract the bitumen, the tar is turned into a liquid mixture as it is combined with water under elevated temperatures. In this process, the bitumen separates from the tar in liquid form, allowing it to be gathered; the unnecessary byproducts are eventually moved back into the tar sand collection sites (ANL, n.d.). This process produces oil from tar sand at an acceptable rate; however, it only works for tar sands that can in fact be mined or dug out by the industrial equipment.

For tar deposits that are too deep, more intensive procedures and more highly specialized equipment are needed in order to gather bitumen from the original location; however such procedures are commonly not cost-efficient due to energy requirements (ANL, n.d.). Therefore, the main process wherein tar sand is converted into oil is still the first method. Tar deposits that are mainly inaccessible are not a priority to be tapped or utilized due to the fact that there is still a wide area for collecting tar sands by normal means.

Just like the more common method of acquiring oil, tar sand processing is also a hazard to the environment and the community (ANL, n.d.). As mentioned, tar sand processing is composed of two main phases, mining and extraction or separation. Each of these phases greatly contributes to a myriad of detrimental effects on nature. In terms of mining, the industrial equipment is known to spew out large amounts of smoke emissions. Also, since the use of this equipment disrupts the geography of the location, it in turn causes further land erosion and deterioration. In addition to the gases released from the equipment, in the second phase, more are further released by the extraction facility. One should also take note that the byproducts are returned to the mining site. Even so, since the majority of these byproducts are initially liquid, harmful fumes and liquids might be leaked during processing at elevated temperatures. In general, other effects on the environment are also observed such as its deadly effects on the flora and fauna; water and air pollution is also an evident result, potentially harming the nearby city (ANL, n.d.).

Given this, it is quite clear that even though tar sand mining is a way to fulfill the oil demands in Canada and other parts of the world, the amount of its detrimental effects on the living population as well as the earth itself can possibly surpass its usefulness.

Therefore, a question comes into mind regarding why the Canadian government, as well as other countries, further support such a method. Hence, a short insight into the economic impacts and details of tar sand mining is required in order to understand the situation completely. As we all know, even if man and nature matters, there are events wherein money matters the most to people.

Due to the global popularity of tar sand based oil; it is a common thought that the process is highly beneficial economically. The truth is in fact really far from this way of thinking. According to experts, the current method of tar sand processing revolves around two major problems: long lead times and large capital investment (King, 2007). Having a long lead time means that the overall unfolding of the process requires a very long span of time. Thus, in relation to this, if there is a very long time required before the product can be utilized, then there is a gap of time wherein technically no income is introduced while expenses continue to increase. The point of large capital investment requirement, on the other hand, is rather self-explanatory. As one can imagine, the huge amount of industrial equipment as well as the extraction facilities requires a lot of cash not only for purchasing purposes but also for preventive maintenance as well as possible repairs.

These details regarding the economic aspects of the process are rather disappointing. In addition, tar sand may also get Canada into further trouble in relation to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Given that there is a required amount of natural gas to be exported to the United States from Canada, and the tar sand processing requires a massive amount of natural gas to serve as energy source, the amount to be exported may no longer be met (King, 2007).

If the production of oil from tar sand or oil sand is economically inefficient, environmentally hazardous, and a threat to global ties, then the Canadian government should abolish this project. The ensuing evident harm from the processing of tar sand is clearly not superseded by the benefits that it can provide. Actually, the benefits that it provides might not be what the world requires after some time, as another solution to oil supply problems, the alternative fuels, is gaining support and popularity worldwide. Not only is alternative fuel much better for the environment, but it is also efficient budget wise. Some of the alternative fuels being developed also have sustainability in mind; hence, no further problems of diminishing supply may ensue. Thus, instead of the Canadian government continuing to support and spend tar sand mining and processing, it is much more strategic to support and fund alternative fuel research instead.


Tar sand, otherwise known as oil sand, has become known to be a possible candidate for solving the global crisis regarding the thinning supply of oil. Through various phases of gathering and processing, the tar sand is broken down and in result releases bitumen which is technically an equal of the more common crude oil variants. Due to this, the government of Canada has supported a tar sand mining and processing project.

  However, the process of gathering bitumen from the tar sand is much complicated and requires several steps, including actual mining and separation procedures using elevated temperatures. Through these processes, one of the main negative aspects of the project is revealed. The environment largely suffers due to the required machinery and facilities and also due to the alterations done to the land in order to progress with gathering tar sand. Erosion, pollution, and death of flora and fauna are all parts of its effect towards the environment.

Even the promise of economical stability by being able to fulfill the demands for oil is not accomplished. The time required in order to complete one production cycle is rather long, consequently lowering its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The daily required costs and the additional costs derived from mechanical maintenance, not even counting worker salary, may very well offset the gains to be acquired.

Therefore, it is highly suggested for the Canadian government to withdraw from the production of oil based on tar sand. A focus in such a scale will be better fitting for the development of alternative fuel sources. If such a way is followed, the damages produced by tar sand processing will be averted as well as the losses in the budget of the country, which may possibly result in Canada emerging as a future leader in alternative fuel production.


Argonne National Laboratory. (n.d.). About tar sands. Oil Shale & Tar Sands Programmatic

EIS Information Center. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/index.cfm

Gary, J.H. & Handwerk, G.E. (2001). Petroleum Refining: Technology and Economics (4th

ed.). New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Gluyas, J. and Swarbrick, R. (2004). Petroleum Geoscience. Malden, Massachusetts:

Blackwell Publishing.

King, B.W. (2007, November 26). Are Canadian tar sands the answer to our oil needs?.

MoneyWeek. Retrieved April 3, 2009 from http://www.moneyweek.com/investments/commodities/are-canadian-tar-sands-the-answer-to-our-oil-needs.aspx

Parra, F. (2004). Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum. London: IB Tauris & Co. Ltd.