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Mythbusting: Are the Oilsands Destroying an Area the Size of Florida?

Alykhan July 25, 2011

The entire expanse of the oilsands resource does cover nearly the same area as the state of Florida—about 140,000 square kilometres. But that doesn’t mean that the extraction of the resource means 140,000 square kilometres of land is going to be “destroyed” or even disturbed. That’s the difference that groups lobbying against Ethical Oil want to blur and confuse: just do a Google search for “tar sands” and “Florida” and “destroy” and witness the hundreds of thousands of hits (falsehoods) that come up.

Often when we picture what oilsands production looks like, we conjure up images of those large open pit mining operations: that’s what anti-oilsands groups and reporters want us to picture, so they broadcast those images as widely and frequently as they can. In fact, most of the expansion happening in the oilsands now involves in situ oilsands mining, a process that can extract tens of millions of barrels of oil over tens of thousands of acres with a physical footprint about the size of a shopping mall parking lot.

In reality, only about 2% of that 140,000 square kilometres will ever be mined in a way that physically interferes with the natural landscape. Open pit mining was the first technology tried in the Athabasca region because it was a basic way of digging up the millions of barrels of oil that was bubbling right up to the surface of the land. Even with those early operations, the oil companies’ provincial license requires them to return the land, once they’re done, to the original state it was in before they began their mining. Syncrude, for instance, has spent billions of dollars “reclaiming” over 1,000 hectares of mined land since 2005. Since, by now, you’ve surely been pummeled by dozens of the industrial-looking “before” photos constantly aired by the CBC and anti-oilsands groups, you should take a look some of the “after” photos and videos of the again-pristine forests and meadows on the Syncrude website. You may have never seen them before; obviously they don’t get nearly as much media play. Of Canada’s 1.4 billion acres of Boreal forest, just one percent of one percent, or 160,000 acres, will be temporarily used for surface mining.

The bulk of the oilsands resource isn’t so shallow that it can just be dug up from the surface. Since it’s buried deep under the earth in huge deposits, much like conventional oil but fused with the soil, oilsands operators have developed technologies that allow them to draw the oil out from where it sits—which is why it’s called in situ, meaning, in it’s original place. The most common method to do this is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, or SAG-D: it essentially drills a hole in the ground and runs pipes down, and then horizontally, through the large oilsands deposits. The pipes steam the oil till it’s soft enough that it separates from the soil, and gets sucked back up through the pipes.

Because, like a conventional oil play, most of the work is done in reservoirs deep underground, the actual amount of land being disturbed is very small. And these low profile in situ operations will, in the long run, comprise 98% of all oilsands recovery. That kind of minor disturbance, not much different than traditional oil drilling, doesn’t make for good anti-oilsands propaganda of course—which is why the enemies of Canada’s Ethical Oil are so eager to hide the truth about it.


A SAGD well pad

Comments (35)

  1. Another great article. I laughed when they compared the size to that of Britain, it’s equally as Funny to compare the size of oil sands mining operations to that of Florida. Simply not true. 80% of oil sands operations are InSitu and the area disturbed by mining will be reclaimed Fact. The area of oil sands deposits that are mineable is less than 3% of total reserves. Also Fact. Keep up the good work! Ethical Oil = Fact

    • Fact: Ethical Oil = poisoning of the natives and their waters
      If stealing the lands from natives then poisoning them and their waters is ethical then u have 1 warped sense of ethics. Either that or you have no idea what the word ethical even means

      • you must not live in Canada. Believe me when I say nothing was stolen from the natives. There are many treaties in place that make sure they don’t have to lift a finger to collect their free education, home, truck and paycheck off my back. The bands make an incredible amount of money off of the exploration on treaty land, and the natives who live and work in the industry profit heavily from the tax-free income they make off of working on crown land. I have never seen so many happy, prosperous native people as I did during my time in the oil sands, which had provided a lifestyle that could not be afforded elsewhere, and had given many the job and stability required to avoid some of the common vices known to effect young men and women.

        • Most of canada, including our industrial operations, is on UNCEDED NATIVE LAND. Almost none of the treaties have actually been settled. This is rather convenient for the North American Market State, as it buys time for industry to extract and sell the resources on this unceded ‘crown land’, which, literally, was stolen. The ‘vices’ you refer to such as alcoholism and family problems are the direct result of an entire people’s loss of culture and way of life, particularly through the use of the residential school system, in which native children were stolen from their communities and forced to live in residential schools where abuse, sexual and otherwise, was rampant.

          Apparently you don’t know this. Are YOU from Canada?

        • It is so sad that you are blind. I feel for you for your ignorance and blindness. I too was in Fort McMurray in the late 70′s and I witnessed first hand the poverty caused by the Syncrudes,GCOS’s and many of the other companies which moved the first nations people to a reserve with no running water or indoor plumbing. Now they are doing well thanks to people fighting for them from within. Before you open your silver spoon fed mouth again, go have a look at the area in which you know nothing of at your time of spewing to be self heard. I walked through the poverty you so smugly say was not present at the sands. AT the time, I had never seen so many sad downtrodden people as the people who were moved not by choice but by force, 3rd world????? NO this was in Alberta, Canada.

        • Dear Jimbo, if by prosperous native people you mean those with jobs then I’d believe your point. The facts are that as with many aspects of Canadian life, there are few that profit and many that don’t when it comes to the oilsands and especially the money that goes to the bands as a result of exploration on native land. As far as the land being stolen from the natives that’s another story you should check into before you automatically defend the notion that it wasn’t forced out of their hands and into the canadian government’s in an unfair manner.
          The majority of the native population lives in squalor and wouldn’t even have internet to read this tilted article let alone even be able to get a glass of water to wash the bullshit down afterwards ( How much money the bands make isn’t even at issue here. The issue is that the surface area being directly affected by exploration and drilling is being misrepresented as not a great amount when in fact it is the total area (i.e. waterways, surrounding ecosystem tied to the project area, etc.) being polluted either directly or indirectly by the extraction of oil from the underground reserves that should be examined and risk reports should be put forward.
          Instead of just drilling the shit out of the ground, saying they’ll clean up and be accountable later and seeing what happens.

    • Fact= Three percent of florida is still a big area.
      Fact= The tar sands will leave behind a man made moon that will take hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years to go back to its former glory.
      Fact=Destroying the homeland of Native Americans is not ethical.
      Destructive Oil=Fact

      • You seem to like the word fact. It’s a pity that you don’t understand the meaning of the word.

  2. Wow, there has been alot of effort put into this website since I recall reading Ezra’s book. Good work! It is remarkable that the Climate Changers get so much ink – and that they receive so much funding to tap away as bloggers and trolls for their cause – while it takes a major effort to launch a counter-argument as we are all toiling away trying to make an honest living.

    Anyways, this post accurately de-legitimizes one of the points made in a UK propaganda billboard campaign from last year. Any I recall having to post a response to this fellow (a journalist/film-maker) who had taken it hook, line and sinker. It was initially about the GOM Oil Spill catastrophe, but morphed into a critique of Alberta Oil Sands as well.

    • So all of a sudden people like me who can’t afford rent is richer then the richest companies on the planet? That’s news to me. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace are mostly volunteer based. Most of their resources come from volunteers. Where as sites like this and all the ethical oil propaganda is backed by the billion dollar oil industries. Of all the fortune 500 companies I can read you countless oil companies however I cannot name you 1 single environmental organization. If you are religious “Thou shalt not lie”

  3. No such thing as ethical oil August 26, 2011 at 11:16

    Wow, talk about myths and lies. Here are the facts…
    Reclaimation: NO tar sands operator has returned the land to same state that they found it in. Of the 600 km2 of land disturbed by tar sands mining, only 0.02% (1.04 km2) has been certified by the Government of Alberta as ‘reclaimed’. According to mine operators an additional 54 km2 has been reclaimed but not yet certified. Little publicly available data supports this claim. Also this ‘reclamation’ does not restore the land to the same condition or even habitat as companies found it, instead boreal land will have much lower levels of carbon density and biodiversity than previously existed. The area certified as ‘reclaimed’ by the Government for instance was formerly wetland not upland forest.
    In-situ extraction: Although it is visibly less striking than open cast mining it can have a larger environmental footprint as a result of deforestation and forest fragmentation by thousands of well pads and thousands of kilometres of connecting gas, steam and bitumen pipelines, access roads and seismic testing exploration lines. This has a profound effect on the flora and fauna of a huge area of formerly pristine boreal forest. For instance it has been proven to be the driving factor behind the dramatic drop in woodland caribou numbers, a once common but now endangered species in northern Alberta. Your implication that it would only impact an area the “size of a shopping mall parking lot” is hilarious. Are you sure this website isn’t a spoof?

    • How did you miss that companies have to monitor reclaimed land for over 15 years before they can apply to have it certified? Land that is reclaimed today will not be certified for at least another 15 years. And currently 10% of the disturbed land is in some process of reclamation from ready to reclaim to waiting for certified status.

  4. The truth about what the First Nations truly think of the Tar Sands is captured very well in this documentary:

    Let the First Nations do the speaking for themselves rather then allowing the oil companies do the talking for them.

  5. To all the negative people out there. Yes oil sands is not perfect but if all you negative people want to stop driving cars, living in houses going to work at the mall etc. Then the world wouldn’t need so much oil and we can shut it all down. And we do treat woman better here than Saudi Arabia so if you think it better there MOVE.

    • Duh. Like giving up fossil fuels is an OPTION. In this world, right now, it isn’t. In the near future, it will be a choice.

      Now that you’ve created the man made moon, how about you put that to use? I’d like to see all of you try.

    • Duh. Like giving up fossil fuels is an OPTION. In this world, right now, it isn’t. In the near future, it will be a choice.

      Now that you’ve created the man made moon, how about you put that to use? I’d like to see all of you try.

  6. Lotta people out there bitching about “no such thing as ethical oil” and using up an awful lot of it at the same time. Don’t like oil? Don’t use it. No transportation, no consumer goods, no heat, no power, no computers. Get off the grid, or take a stand by choosing the lesser of two evils.

  7. I personally don’t think the use of oil is evil at all. I think the over polluting of our planet is wrong. But balanced use that allows us to live while also allowing other things to live is not evil. Fools jump on bandwagons and end up with the resot of the fools in a place they probably didn’t want to be.

  8. dolphinsareawesome September 29, 2011 at 20:28

    Let’s not forget that there’s not just one strip mining site. If they want to extract the Boreal Forest’s true amount, then there has to be more than four. And what about the roads, dirty sludge holes, and refineries built to help out all that oil?

    I’m all for not getting oil from Saudi Arabia but the tar sands is NOT an acceptable alternative.

  9. Yeah, well how long are the drills to get the in situ oil? They certainly can’t cover the whole area. Surely there are more strip mining pits.

  10. Yeah, well how long are the drills to get the in situ oil? They certainly can’t cover the whole area. Surely there are more strip mining pits.

  11. Actually, this sounds like the biggest cleanup of oil in history. The ground is literally saturated with oil, even bubbling up to the surface. I would think that environmentalists would be pleased that the oil is being removed. The land afterwards will be clean and safe.

    • This oil, in the shape that it’s found, has naturally formed there. Why ‘clean’ it up and burn it so we can heat the planet a little bit more?

  12. broader impacts? December 16, 2011 at 14:41

    Regardless of how “ethical” Canadian oil is, this piece is just as slanted as the work coming from the “CBC and anti-oilsands groups”. I study restoration-ecology at a Canadian university and many of the statements in this article are false or spun. Two main points come to mind though…
    1. lands that have been “restored” by Syncrude et al are barely that at all. Its like clear cutting a parcel of old-growth forest and replanting it with rolls of sod… its just not the same as it once was.
    2. How can you write an article about oilsands destruction and not comment on the tailing sites? These are some of the most toxic and dangerous environments on the planet.

    The very term “ethical oil” is so bogus. Of course its more ethical from a social perspective, but what about beyond that? Why does our environment, and our health not deserve to be taken into account?

    • Old growth forests actually absorb less CO2 then fresh growth. The natural cycle is forest fire -> fresh growth -> aging forest -> old growth -. repeat

  13. ExTex:
    “Lotta people out there bitching about “no such thing as ethical oil” and using up an awful lot of it at the same time. Don’t like oil? Don’t use it. No transportation, no consumer goods, no heat, no power, no computers. Get off the grid, or take a stand by choosing the lesser of two evils. ”

    Vancouver Sun, Letter to the Editor:
    “In his letter to the editor (2011/12/12 Vancouver Sun), N.J. Thurber of Calgary comments that anyone who objects to development of infrastructure for petroleum products has no right to use anything derived from petroleum, from gasoline to plastics.

    I would ask Mr. Thurber, if he felt he needed to save more money, would he deposit his entire paycheck into savings? If he felt he was overweight, would he entirely stop eating?

    This same bogus reasoning was used against those who opposed certain aspects of logging, and against those who opposed cruel treatment of animals. Rather than support more intelligent exploitation of the forests and ending brutish handling of animals, those of Mr. Thurber’s ilk depicted others as hypocrites if they used toilet paper or wore shoes.

    This approach drives wedges between people rather than help us toward satisfactory solutions to the serious problems facing all of us.”

  14. Some may see this as an ethical gray area. To me and many people it is not gray but deep dark black! Destroying this land is wrong, period. Now, we can debate all we want on how we will solve our future energy problems, I say, ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION IS OUT OF THE QUESTION! Please put our great minds to doing something that WORKS for Canada, Alberta and the World. These tar sands and proposed pipelines wont work and will only create more problems to solve.

  15. ethical oil is a myth January 12, 2012 at 20:41

    And this is under ‘MYTHBUSTING’?
    How ironic can you get?! I am so sick of hearing all this bullshit. I’m sick of my government telling me that everything they do is to create a future I can live in while they simultaneously destroy the planet. I’m sick of the inexhaustible attention paid to the economy, as though the planet that we live on- every place, every moment of history, every human’s future, everything that we are- is not even worth consideration. I’m sick of that totally logical concern being undermined as ‘radical environmentalism’. What is so radical about wanting to survive? Hasn’t that kind of been our primary concern since the dawn of our species?! I’m sick of living in a country that sits on a high horse about our environmental policy while we withdraw from kyoto and are responsible for the second largest emissions on the planet; I’m sick of hearing the argument that oil jobs today feed our kids when it’s unbearably obvious that all it’s giving them is a world full of undrinkable water, poisoned earth and, oh yeah. Oil. As though I can fucking drink oil.

    Dear “ethical oil” (irony strikes again): get the fuck off my planet.

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