Oilsands | Pembina Institute

Key facts in context

Cover of Pembina Institute report Beneath the Surface: a review of key facts in the oilsands debateAs the debate over oilsands development has become increasingly polarized, misinformation about the impacts of oilsands production abounds. Below you'll find a list of key facts related to the environmental impacts of oilsands development and the ongoing challenges industry faces in improving environmental performance. Together, these facts represent significant barriers to achieving responsible oilsands development.

Each of the facts outlined below is explained in detail in our 2013 report, Beneath the Surface: a review of key facts in the oilsands debate.

Download the full report | Read the backgrounder

For more general facts about the oilsands, please see the Oilsands 101 section of our website.

Climate and air

  • Average oilsands production is significantly more greenhouse gas-intensive than conventional oil production.
  • Oilsands emissions are a growing problem.
  • Oilsands emissions matter on a national scale, and are a significant barrier to meeting Canada’s 2020 climate commitment.
  • Oilsands emissions matter on a global scale.
  • Current regulations do not result in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands development.
  • Air quality is starting to be impacted by oilsands air pollution.
  • Forecasted growth in oilsands will present very serious air pollution challenges in the Wood Buffalo Region.

Water

  • Water monitoring in northeastern Alberta has been inadequate, yet governments continue to approve new oilsands projects.
  • Oilsands extraction uses large amounts of water, despite recycling efforts.
  • Oilsands companies are not required to stop withdrawing water from the Athabasca River, even if river flows are so low that fisheries and habitat are at risk.

Tailings

  • Oilsands tailings volumes continue to grow due to a permissive regulatory approach.
  • Tailings lakes house compounds known to be acutely toxic to aquatic organisms.
  • Tailings lakes seep an undetermined amount of toxic waste.
  • Capping toxic tailings waste in end pit lakes with water is an unproven and risky concept.

Land and wildlife

  • Restoration of wetlands continues to be a major challenge and may never occur.
  • The boreal forest will not be restored to its native state following mine closure.
  • In situ developments may affect a much larger area than oilsands mining.
  • Woodland caribou herds are declining in the oilsands and are on track to be extirpated.
  • Oilsands development threatens to harm millions of birds through habitat fragmentation and destruction.

Economics

  • Taxpayers may foot the bill for cleanup of oilsands mines.
  • The costs and benefits of oilsands development are not spread evenly across Canada.
  • Relying on the volatile profits from oilsands projects to fund government and social programs creates financial risks for both the private and public sector.
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