7 facts on the oil sands and the environment

While the oil sands industry continues to make technological advances, annual production growth presents challenges to land, water, and air impacts, and energy conservation.  Through its CanmetENERGY laboratories, Natural Resources Canada is committed to supporting the development of technological solutions to help drive improved environmental performance in the oil sands.

Here are 7 key facts about the oil sands and the environment:

1. Per barrel greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have decreased

Technological advancements in the oil sands have helped create more energy efficient practices and to decrease GHG emissions in the oil sands. One of the most important mechanisms used to achieve this is co-generation. This is a process where steam and electricity is produced simultaneously. By converting energy and by-product into electricity that would otherwise be waste, co-generation has contributed significantly to the 30% decrease in per barrel GHG emissions seen in the oil sands since 1990. Find out more about the work CanmetENERGY is doing to further reduce GHG emissions in the oil sands.

2. Most GHG emissions come from your car

While GHGs are emitted in the extraction phase of the crude oil production process, most of the life cycle emissions of fuel come from a vehicle’s tailpipe. Final combustion of gasoline emerging from your tailpipe accounts for approximately 70%-80% of well-to-wheel life-cycle emissions. These vehicle emissions are the same, regardless of the crude oil from which the gasoline is derived.

3. Tailings ponds technology is improving

Oil sand extraction results in the accumulation of large amounts of residual waste known as tailings, which contain a mixture of water, clay, un-recovered bitumen and solvent, and dissolved chemicals, including some organic compounds that are toxic. These tailings are stored in large ponds similar to water dams. The water released from the ponds can be recycled and reused in oil sands processing; however, the majority remains as mud almost indefinitely.

CanmetENERGY has been striving to develop effective solutions to manage tailings ponds and has made significant progress. Read about some of our success stories on tailings management in the oil sands.

4. All oil sands land must be re-claimed

The Government of Alberta requires that companies remediate and reclaim 100 percent of the land after the oil sands have been extracted. Reclamation means that land is returned to a self-sustaining ecosystem with local vegetation and wildlife. In the oil sands area, the Government of Alberta has committed to conserving and protecting more than 2 million hectares of habitat for native species as part of the 2012–2022 Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. In addition, there are almost 4.5 million hectares of federally protected land just north of the oil sands. Learn more about land reclamation in the oil sands.

5. Oil sands water withdrawals are closely monitored

The Athabasca River Water Management Framework ensures annual withdrawals by oil sands companies never exceed 3 percent of the Athabasca River flow. In practice, annual withdrawals are often less than 1 percent. The framework also limits, monitors, and adjusts withdrawals from the river on a weekly basis. Learn about what NRCan is doing to improve water use efficiency and reduce pollutants related to water in the oil sands.

6. Almost all water in the oil sands is recycled

Most water used in oil sands development is recycled – 80 percent for established mining operations and approximately 94 percent for in-situ recovery. However, some new water is required and comes from a variety of sources, including on-site drainage, collected precipitation (rain and melt water), underground salt water (brackish) aquifers, and the local watershed such as rivers. Learn more about water management in the oil sands.

7. New regulations could further reduce emissions

On November 22, 2015 the Government of Alberta released their new Climate Leadership Plan. Under the Climate Plan, Alberta will: phase out coal emissions by 2030, offer incentives for renewable generation, implement an economy-wide carbon price, legislate a cap on oil sands emissions, implement a new methane emissions reduction plan and implement an Energy Efficiency Program. Read more on Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.

That said, the Government of Canada looks forward to setting truly national targets that we will work together to achieve. Learn more about Canada’s approach to climate change and GHG emissions.