By August 2001, this Landsat satellite image shows that operations along the Athabasca had grown considerably.
Producing oil sands crude here means first clear-cutting boreal forest and then removing as much as 100 feet (30 meters) of underlying soil and peat—up to four tons for each barrel of oil.
This heavy lifting is just the first step in an energy-intensive production process. The thick, viscous oil called bitumen must be separated from the sand using water or steam, and then it must be further processed into crude oil. As a result, producing oil here releases more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production. Environmental groups dub this the "world's dirtiest oil," while the industry and Canada's national and provincial governments have pursued projects like large-scale carbon capture to try to "green" the product.
"If the oil sands are ever going to be produced responsibly there needs to be an adequate environmental management program in place that takes into account the cumulative environmental effects on things like water, land use, and greenhouse gases," says Nathan Lemphers, a policy analyst with Pembina Institute, the Canadian environmental organization that monitors the industry via www.oilsandswatch.org.
Lemphers argues that appropriate regulation is not yet in place. "There have been half a dozen independent, expert panels which concluded that the current environmental monitoring system which assesses impact of the oil sands is not adequate for the current amount of development let alone what's projected to come in the future," he says. "We're only at the tip of the iceberg given the size of this resource."
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the proven, recoverable oil sands reserves at more than 170 billion barrels—more than the total reserves of any other nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.