The oil sands of northern Alberta, sometimes called the Athabasca Tar Sands, consist of more than a 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy crude bitumen (heavy oil), making it the third, and possibly second, largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Russia. The Oil Sands have become the economic engine in Canada’s success, providing more than 600,000 jobs and incomes that are above-average in North America ($101,000 compared to $52,000). But the Oil Sands have not come without controversy. Global protests about the destruction of Alberta’s pristine environment have brought the companies operating in northern Alberta under scrutiny, and created a dialogue concerning the future of the Oil Sands, and Canada’s economy.
The Athabasca Tar Sands contain deposits of bitumen, a heavy crude oil that is difficult to extract.Only until recently did the technology and engineering know-how to extract oil from tar sands exist, creating a sudden boom in Alberta. Surface mining is the main process by which the oil sands are collected. The sand is driven in monster “mountain mover” trucks to an extraction plant where hot water and caustic soda is added to the sand, causing the oil to float and the sand to sink. The oil is skimmed from the top and stored for piping to a refinery.
The controversy surrounding the oil sands is with the massive environmental destruction surface mining causes, as well as the disposal of used water once the oil has been separated from the sand. First, thousands of square kilometers of Alberta’s pristine environment has been clear-cut and excavated, while toxic water runoff has been found in streams and rivers hundreds of miles from the tar sands sites.
Despite controversies surrounding the Oil Sands, the province of Alberta has supplanted Ontario as the richest province in Canada. Revenues from the Oil Sands, in the form of royalties and corporate taxation, means that Alberta is the only province without a sales tax, and has the lowest personal income taxes in Canada. Alberta has also become the economic engine of Canada after the 2008 financial collapse caused manufacturing to disappear in Ontario. Job growth sits at more than 5% per year in Alberta, and the province has the lowest unemployment rate in North America (3.1% compared to a continental average of 7.3%). The Oil Sands provides jobs, directly or indirectly, that provide stability, high incomes, full benefits and career opportunities to more than half a million Canadians.
It’s because of the Oil Sands that Alberta is becoming the go-to place for young Canadians, who struggle in their home provinces to buy homes, pay taxes and raise families on shrinking salaries and escalating costs. Alberta is becoming a promise land, where young professionals can settle and own a home and raise a family. With low crime rates, affordable housing prices, low taxes and an abundance of high-paying jobs, the benefits of the Oil Sands outweigh the environmental damage for many people.
Alberta (and more recently Saskatchewan as the oil sands are found to stretch into that province, as well) is the #1 provider of oil to both Canada and the USA. More than 64% of America’s oil comes from Alberta. The 2008 recession hit the oil sands hard, and recently the government of Canada has been diversifying Alberta’s customer base by singing trade deals with Russia, India and, the thirstiest of them all, China. Attempts to sign a deal with the EU failed when mass protests over the environmental damage of the oil sands erupted in Europe and America.
The protests have even managed to disrupt construction of two controversial pipelines, the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring crude bitumen from Alberta into the US, and the Northern Gateway pipeline that would pump oil from Alberta to British Columbia’s Pacific coast for transport to China. Both pipelines have been put on hold as the public outcry has forced politicians to reconsider the environmental effects.
The fate of the pipelines is not set in stone, but the future of the oil sands is. Production of heavy crude from the Athabasca Tar Sands will continue for at least another 50 years, and the economic benefits the oil sand provide to workers, cities and even the entire nation will continue to flow in. The opposition to oil sands development will only increase as production does.