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Oil sands mining in Canada

The precious mud

But if you visit the area around the Athabasca River in the province in western Canada, you will see completely different sights. Because Alberta is not only the "home of the Canadian Rockies", as the tourism site advertises, but also the home of Canadian oil.

Canada's oil treasure is stored deep in Alberta's forest floor. On an area twice the size of Bavaria, there is said to be more than 170 billion barrels of degradable oil (one barrel = 159 liters). Larger oil reserves are known worldwide only in Saudi Arabia.

These huge deposits have been known for a long time, but they have only been a treasure for Canada's oil industry since the turn of the millennium. For a long time, oil production in Alberta was simply not worthwhile.

The reason: The oil is bound in the sand as so-called bitumen - hydrocarbons that come from dead plants, among other things.

Alberta's oil sands are a sticky, black mixture of 83 percent sand, four percent water, three percent clay and ten percent liquid bitumen. Extracting usable crude oil from this mixture, which is usually stored at depths of 30 meters, is a complex and costly process.

Only technological innovations and, above all, the dwindling oil reserves and the resulting rising oil price make oil sands mining a lucrative business.

Sand becomes oil

The common method with which crude oil is extracted from the oil sands is reminiscent of the local lignite mining. After the forest has been cleared, excavators first remove the forest floor and then excavate the oil sands.

Gigantic trucks bring the sand for further processing. It must be cleared of stones and crushed. With the help of water and solvents, the bitumen is separated from the sand and later refined into crude oil, which can then be further processed into gasoline, for example.

If the oil sands are too deep in the ground for open-cast mining, a method is used in which two parallel shafts are bored into the ground. Water vapor is pressed under high pressure through a shaft, which dissolves the bitumen and pumps it up through the other shaft.

No forests have to be cleared here. However, this process consumes even more energy and releases more carbon dioxide (CO2).

Consequences for the environment and people

Oil sands mining involves huge amounts, which you can see from the fact that it takes two tons of oil sands to extract a barrel of oil. In 2012, Alberta produced 1.5 million barrels of oil a day from oil sands.

If the oil producers have their way, by 2020 it could be at least three to five million barrels a day. It is clear that this "largest industrial project on the planet", as Greenpeace calls oil sands mining in Canada, cannot remain without consequences for the environment:

Huge areas of coniferous forest have become desolate lunar landscapes with poisonous ponds and sulfur mountains.

To wash one liter of bitumen out of the sand, you need five liters of water - water that is then silt contaminated with heavy metals and sometimes carcinogenic hydrocarbons and stored in clarification ponds.

With a total of 130 square kilometers, these artificial lakes full of poisonous liquor are already half the size of Frankfurt am Main. The Canadian "Pembina Institute", which deals with energy and environmental issues, estimates that 11 million liters of the toxic wastewater seep into the groundwater and the surrounding rivers every day.

This estimate is also supported by studies that have found high concentrations of mercury, arsenic and carcinogenic hydrocarbons in the water and in the fish of the Athabascas, which flows past the mining areas and clarifiers.

And in the village of Fort Chipewyan, a little more than 200 kilometers downstream, the number of cancer cases has increased noticeably.

In addition, converting the sand into crude oil consumes gigantic amounts of natural gas. The climate balance of oil sands mining is also very bad: According to Greenpeace, 62 to 176 kilograms of CO2 are released depending on the type of mining - three to five times as much as with conventional oil production.

Big effort, big business

What has devastating consequences for the environment is a profitable business for the large oil companies despite the great expense. And not just for them. The province of Alberta also benefits from oil sands mining, after all taxes and fees paid by the oil sands companies account for almost a third of Alberta's income.

Only tourism is unlikely to stimulate industry, which is turning huge stretches of land into desolate wastelands. There are of course no photos of the mining areas on the website that Alberta wants to use to attract tourists. At least there is a reference to the oil industry: A trip to the oil museum is recommended under sights.

Author: Christoph Teves