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Alberta’s Oil Sands: Relation to Climate Change and the Road to Mitigation

Ashley Carver

The extraction of oil sands acts as a worldwide contributor to climate change; however, the mining activity persists– predominantly in Alberta, Canada. Alberta’s oil sands emanated from organic matter composed of ancient sea creatures which fell to the seafloor that once covered Alberta millions of years ago. The organic matter was then enveloped by layers of sediment, subsequently creating enough pressure and temperature changes prompting the transformation of the organic material into petroleum. As the Earth underwent reformations, the oil migrated north and became embedded in quartz sand. Hydrocarbons then began to evaporate from the sand, leaving behind bitumen (oil) and water to later be covered by glacial debris. Today, oil sands are revealed by outcrops along three regions in Alberta: Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River.

Significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions result from oil extraction, concerning both conventional crude oil and oil extracted from oil sands (otherwise known as synthetic crude oil). To measure the total amount of carbon dioxide released from oil extraction, two components of the process must be individually quantified– the combustion and use of the fuel, as well as the production (ie. the extraction, refining, and transportation) of the oil. Carbon emissions for the combustion of conventional and synthetic crude oil are the same at roughly 430 kilograms per barrel; however, the difference between the two types lies in the production of the oil. In Canada, the production of a single barrel of conventional crude oil releases approximately 35.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide, whereas the production of a single barrel of synthetic crude oil releases on average 134 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The larger emissions are a consequence of the increased difficulty of extracting bitumen from the oil sands, along with the energy intensive conversion process that the crude bitumen must undergo in order to derive synthetic crude oil.

More than three million barrels of oil are pumped out of oil sands per day in Alberta alone, making Canada the fourth-largest oil producer in the world. Additionally, approximately 11 percent of Canada’s total carbon emissions are attributable to northern Alberta’s oil sand facilities. In June of 2021, Canada’s leading oil industry competitors pledged to reduce their companies’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Correspondingly, the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero alliance was created, composed of five (now six) companies: Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy, Suncor Energy, and presently, ConocoPhillips.

The Pathways overall goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and to do so they have made a plan that incorporates three phases– one corresponding to each decade. The phases involve several emission-reducing strategies including the utilization of lower-emission sources of energy and electricity (ie. natural gas and hydrogen), but the main technique pertains to burying the emissions underground. Currently, Pathways is focusing on the goal of capturing and sequestering 8.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions underground every year by 2030. The plan is to obtain the gasses from eight different oil sand facilities in northeastern Alberta, where the gasses will then be transported via pipeline and pumped underground in the Cold Lake area. Pathways believes that more than 20 facilities will ultimately play a part in their plan of storing carbon emissions underground, amounting to 40 million tonnes of emissions buried per year. Right now, the oil sand industry produces about 68 million tonnes of emissions annually, so this plan would be groundbreaking toward the mitigation of the climate crisis.


1. "“Climate impacts of oil sands” Energy Education.,dioxide%20and%20other%20greenhouse%20gases.

2. “Canada’s Tar Sands: Destruction So Vast and Deep It Challenges the Existence of Land and People” Inside Climate News.

3. “Oilsands companies have an emissions problem and a plan to fix it — but who's listening?” CBC.

4. Pathways Alliance.

5. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

6. “The Formation of Oil Sands” Alberta.


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