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.