Athabasca Sand Tars (Alberta Sand Tars)


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


The Athabasca sand tars also called the Alberta sand tars, is the world’s largest sand tar mining operations. Sand tar mining includes the use of strip mining and causes extensive ecological destruction. The Athabasca sand tar field is estimated to cover 54,000 square miles (about 141,000 square kilometers). Much of the land area is covered with boreal forest (coniferous forest consisting largely of pines, larches and spruce trees), and is part of the expanse of the Taiga, the world largest stretch of boreal forest covering an area that expands from Alaska, across Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and much of Russia. The estimate oil reserve in the Athabasca sand tar is about 1.8 trillion barrels, and is said to contain a quantity of petroleum equivalent to all known conventional oil reserves. The Athabasca sand tars are largely comprised of bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum that can take the form of a very dense liquid.
Mining in the Athabasca area began in 1967, and slowed during the late 1970s. It was not until Shell Canada’s investment in sand tar extraction beginning in 2005 that sand tar mining in the area grew extensively. Part of the product of the Athabasca sand tars is shipped through the Keystone XL pipeline to oil refineries in Texas near the Gulf of Mexico.

As noted, the mining methods employed for recovery of the Athabasca sand tar is highly destructive of local ecosystems, and the process of sand tar recovery produces large toxic waste retention ponds and heavy water pollution in the region. It requires about two tons of sand tar to produce one barrel of oil. The sand tars currently produce about 1.2 million barrel per day, and at that rate, the quantity of sand tars and ecological rich surface areas that must be removed is extensive.

Water pollution and water diverse to the sand tars project is extensive, and has caused widespread ecological damage. For an extensive report on the ecological effects of the Athabasca sand tar project, see this report from World Watch Institute or this report from Resilence. Numerous scientific studies have examined the health effects posed by the Athabasca sand tar mining operations (Kelley at al., 2009; for a review of scientific evidence, see, Timoney and Lee, 2009).

The Athabasca sand tars are a central driver of Alberta’s economy, constituting about one-third of Alberta’s gross domestic product. The government of Alberta earns more than 3 billion dollar per year from in royalties from oil companies that extract sand tars. The Athabasca sand tars have also become of vital importance to the US, and the US now imports more oil from Canada than from any other nations, significantly reducing its dependency on middle eastern oil supplies.

Due to political issues related to the dispersion and production of oil, the importance of the sand tars to the Canadian economy and the US, the ecological harm the projected has caused, and its effects of climate change, the project remains quite controversial, and that controversy can be expected to continue for quite some time. Part of that controversy include environmental justice effects for Native Canadians, and reports of increases rates of cancer among Native Canadian communities (for discussion see Irvine et al., 2014). The sand tars projects has been called a form of industrial genocide against Native Canadian peoples (Huseman and Short, 2012).

Further Reading


Huseman, Jennifer, and Damien Short. 2012. “‘A slow industrial genocide’: tar sands and the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta.” The International Journal of Human Rights 16, 1: 216-237.

Irvine, Graham M., Jules M. Blais, James R. Doyle, Linda E. Kimpe, and Paul A. White. 2014. “Cancer risk to First Nations’ people from exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons near in-situ bitumen extraction in Cold Lake, Alberta.” Environmental Health 13, 1: 7.

Kelly, Erin N., Jeffrey W. Short, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Mingsheng Ma, Alvin K. Kwan, and Barbra L. Fortin. 2009. “Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 52: 22346-22351.

Timoney, Kevin P., and Peter Lee. “Does the Alberta tar sands industry pollute? The scientific evidence.” Open Conservation Biology Journal 3 (2009): 65-81.

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