What are “tar sands”? “Tar sands” is another name for what is more accurately known as “oil sands,” and are a fossil fuel resource. It is composed of sand, claw, water, and bitumen, which is an oil that is black and viscous. Bitumen is thick oil that doesn’t flow, and for this reason, people (incorrectly) started to commonly call the “oil sands” the “tar sands.” Technically, though bitumen and tar are similar, they are not the same.
The sands can be mined, and then processed, to remove the bitumen. Once processed, then bitumen can be then refined into oil. It is a complex process of extraction and separation that is often harvested through strip mining and underground heating.
Most of the world’s oil, an estimated 2 trillion barrels, is found in the bitumen of tar sands. Accessing this resource allows us to continue building our society while maintaining our current lifestyle. On the other hand, the mining, extraction, and separation process can have a detrimental effect on the environment.
Here are the pros and cons of “tar sands” to consider.
The Pros of Tar Sands
1. It provides a localized economic benefit.
Tar sands that were found in Alberta have helped Canada become the #1 foreign supplier of oil to the United States. This has helped the US become less dependent on OPEC products, provided an economic boon for Canada, and provided communities in Alberta with numerous jobs that wouldn’t be present if the tar sands were not being harvested.
2. It is a secure source of energy.
Although tar sands are not an unlimited resource, they are a relatively stable one. Even in the times of an economic downturn, mining the tar sands and extracting the bitumen continue to provide jobs, generate profits, and keep families from becoming financially desperate. With the largest reserves found in Canada and Venezuela, the bitumen is a relatively secure source of energy for those who depend upon it as well.
3. Environmental changes can be repaired.
For the Alberta tar sands project, the materials that were removed from the site so the mine could be effective have been kept in reserve to restore the land once the bitumen has been completely harvested. Although this won’t replace the trees that were removed, the topsoil and other vegetation has been held in reserve so it can be replaced.
4. Recipients of tar sands experience economic benefits.
Workers in tar sands operations can earn an excellent wage. Many operations have a lack of workers, which means current employees can ask for higher wages and receive them. In the US, where tar sand bitumen is routinely processed, many jobs are created because of this product as well. Just one expansion project in Indiana, for example, that occurred in 2009 created up to 1,400 unionized pipe fitting jobs.
5. Land preservation efforts can occur simultaneously with tar sands operations.
One company involved in the Alberta tar sands operation, Syncrude, spends more than $100 million annually on land restoration efforts. Some of the lands which have been reclaimed have been fully certified by the Canadian government.
6. It fits into existing systems.
Because the bitumen from tar sands can be converted into crude oil through its processing, it can fit into our existing energy infrastructure quite easily. This helps to keep costs down and doesn’t require any changes to societal infrastructures to use the energy resource.
The Cons of Tar Sands
1. Clear-cutting is often required to access deposits.
In the Alberta tar sands operation, most of the operations were to clear the land so that the actual deposit could be accessed. That meant trees had to be clear-cut from the area. Topsoil and other vegetation had to be removed as well. This resulted in a change or loss of habitat for local wildlife over the course of the operation that may not be able to recover.
2. Extracting bitumen from tar sands is carbon-intensive.
The emissions from the average tar sands operation are up to 15% higher than in standard crude oil processing procedures. This increase is due to the depth of the oil in tar sands and the separation process that is required to separate the bitumen from the other components.
3. Dependence on tar sands may just prolong the inevitable.
At current oil consumption rates, the reserves that are found in the global supply of tar sands will last for about 2 more generations. Without a change to other forms of energy, or the discovery of new crude reserves, many societies will be faced with a tough decision in about 40 years about what to do for their needs to be met.
4. The waste products from tar sands are highly toxic.
Once the bitumen is separated from the clay and sand, the remaining soil is highly toxic. To keep it out of groundwater tables, the leftovers are pumped into tailing ponds or waste areas. This process uses a lot of energy that is not always calculated into the final benefits of using tar sands and it causes several toxic ponds to be located all over the landscape. These ponds will likely remain even after a tar sands operation ceases.
5. Leaks from tar sands operations could harm people and animals in the region.
In 2008, a large flock of ducks landed in a tailing pond in Canada. Over 1,600 of them drowned because of the toxic exposure they received from the water of that pond. The Miklisew Cree First Nation tribe believes that leaks from tailing ponds and other tar sands operations is increasing the risks of developing rare and significant cancers in their population.
6. It takes a lot of water to run a tar sands operation.
For the Alberta tar sands project, it takes up to 4.5 gallons of freshwater to be able to produce 1 barrel of oil. Even when operations are highly efficient, it still requires 2 gallons of freshwater to produce a single barrel of oil. In times of drought or famine, using water to produce oil products instead of growing crops or providing the resource to those in need raises ethical questions.
7. Methods of extraction which do not involve strip mining are even worse for the environment.
ConocoPhilips uses a heating method to extract bitumen from tar sands. They expose the bitumen to steam so the product is softened and this allows it to be pumped to the processor. Then the water is recycled so it can be used for steam again. Although this process is friendlier to the local habitat, the burning of natural gas to create steam increases the emission risk by another 10-15% over traditional crude extraction.
The pros and cons of tar sands show us that short-term gains happen, but at the expense of long-term problems. We must work to find a solution that will limit emissions and habitat damage to benefit from this natural resource. If we cannot find this solution, we may run out of bitumen one day and leave a more polluted planet for future generations.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.