Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


In situ production not an environmental gamechanger

While oil sands mining is set to expand for decades, in situ techniques are expected to surpass mining by 2017, changing the face of oil sands production. Industry has argued in situ is a less impactful form of production, but we've done our homework and the results don't support industry claims.

Alberta's oil sands underlie approximately 140,000 km2 - an area about the size of Florida. Of that area, 60 per cent has been leased for development. In situ techniques involve drilling down to reach oil sands too deep to mine, and more than 80 per cent of Alberta's oil sands are too deep to mine. That means the impacts associated with in situ oil sands development matter.

Alberta land leased to oil sands development

We get a lot of requests for information comparing the environmental performance of oil sands mining versus in situ oil sands development. As a result of this, we have developed a new resource - a fact sheet that compares mining and in situ development side by side for the first time.

Using data from our report cards, Undermining the Environment and Drilling Deeper, we found it's clearly not possible to state that one form of oil sands development is environmentally preferable to the other - despite attempts by some industry boosters to do so.Google satellite image of in situ development near Cold Lake, Alberta

In situ oil sands development is more greenhouse gas and sulphur dioxide intensive per barrel of bitumen than oil sands mining. A typical mineable barrel on the other hand, results in more water use. While it would seem that oil sands mining would have a greater impact on Alberta's forests, the data suggests that from a cumulative perspective in situ development may result in a greater loss of forest habitat. In situ oil sands development also fares poorly when you factor in the loss of habitat associated with the increased gas production required to fuel in situ extraction. That means a typical in situ barrel may actually have a Nexen's Long Lake, Alberta in situ development higher land footprint than a mined barrel of bitumen.

It's tempting to claim in situ is preferable to oil sands mining. After all, mining creates expansive toxic tailings lakes and open pit mines, both posing serious reclamation challenges. But we need to weigh the evidence before we look at one form of development as preferable to the other. The evidence tells us - both mining and in situ oil sands development produce significant  cumulative environmental impacts, and those remain unaddressed.

Patz — May 29, 2010 - 09:23 PM MT

I wonder if anyone can refer me to a study or even a well-documented or researched estimate of the energy efficiency of oil obtained from the tar sands. In the book Tar Sands Nikiforuk says that the amount of natural gas used to produce 1 barrel of oil equals 1/3 of the energy obtained. The reason I ask is that people are beginning to realize that net energy (gross energy-energy cost of production and distribution= net energy) is the real figure to look for.

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