Dirty business: Digging in Canada's tar sands

The extraction of oil in the state of Alberta (CA) is causing permanent damage for local communities. Sasja Beslik has visited the area to look at company procedures and the environmental consequences of oil sand.

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Beneath the sand in the state of Alberta, Canada, lies some of the largest oil reserves in the world. In fact, the so-called tar sands deposits cover an area of 140,000 km2 (more than England) and they contain enough oil to go around for the next 200 years.

The oil production is a welcome boost for the Canadian economy and is expected to spearhead significant growth for years to come. In Albany alone, the extraction of oil from the sand is expected to create 600,000 new jobs before 2020. So you can see why some Canadian politicians and the industry are supporting this.

We should not just accept things as they are, nor should we back out and refrain from investing

However, it also has huge consequences for the environment and the local population. Extraction of oil involves chemicals and residual chemicals are stored in tailing ponds. These lakes cause much of the damage for local communities and the original settlements that have been living on the land for thousands of years. Now, some of them are advised against drinking tap water because of potential toxic waste. Local community members seek more dialogue with the oil companies and the local government, but so far they feel left out in the process.

As investors we always have an impact. Partly through investment, but also through the questions we can ask to companies, to employees, to politicians and local communities. We should not just accept things as they are, nor should we back out and refrain from investing.

In the case of the tar sands deposits in Canada it is important that a number of environmental issues are addressed if the extraction of oil is continue without causing irreversible damage to our climate and to local communities.

At the end of the day if none of the benefits go to the local population, we have failed.

​​​​​​What are tar sands?

Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil.

The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.

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