Canada’s oil sands – some perspective

Wired magazine published a photo-journalistic article about the enormity of Alberta’s “tar” sands. The photos were described as “disturbing.”

On the face of it the photos do give the impression that the oil sands are unfathomably massive, but perspective is always critical. And in this case, perspective paints a somewhat different picture of the magnitude.

As always, Google to the rescue. Somebody created a Google map showing the extent of Canada’s oil sands. Here’s a screen capture of it.

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[Quick note: you can click on each of the images to get a larger view.]

Those red areas are existing projects and the yellow areas are areas that have extraction permits and leases but presumably haven’t been accessed yet. The dots seem kind of small, so we have to zoom in a bit. Here’s a closer shot, focusing on Northern Alberta.

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Given the “disturbing” scale of the oil sands I kind of assumed one could just pick a red area, zoom in, and see broad scale destruction of natural habitat. Forests ravaged. Ecosystems vanishing. Death, destruction, catastrophe. So, I picked the red area kind of in the middle; the biggest one. The one between “Wabasca-Desmarais” and the Athabasca River. Below is a close-up.

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Notice the lakes on the left and the river on the right to get your bearings. When we look at that large red area in “satellite” mode this is what we see.

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[Technical note if you’re trying this yourself: I had to open a different tab with generic Google Maps. I couldn’t get satellite view in the map provided. Not sure why; isn’t important.]

On the left side of the image you can see the one lake, and on the right side you can see the river. In between? Well, if you look carefully there are some roads that cut through the area. I’m not familiar with the oil sands, but when I poke around on the internet this area seems to be called the “Pelican Lake” area, and all the oil is underground so it must be accessed by drilling. So much for the surface mining. So much for massive destruction of natural habitats.

When I poked around at a few of the other red areas it appears a number of them are underground. A good number of the red areas show healthy forests and other vegetation only slightly disturbed by some roads and isolated facilities (according to Google maps, at any rate). More in a minute.

But there are some surface mines, obviously. The ones near Fort McMurray are of that variety. Here are those red areas.

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Keep the cities of Fort McMurray and Fort MacKay in mind as landmarks. Here’s the satellite imagery (presumably from before the fire).

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So clearly there is some open surface mining going on around Fort McMurray. And it’s not small. Using the scale in the corner of the map as a rough guide it would appear that the largest one, at its longest span, is in the order of 25 or 30 km from end to end. That’s a pretty good distance, so I’m not trying to downplay the magnitude of these projects by any stretch of the imagination. That’s a lot of surface area; a lot of destroyed forestry.

But as a matter of perspective – now that you know where these mines are, and roughly how big they are – here’s a screen capture of Western Canada, as seen in satellite view.

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Can you find the Fort McMurray oil sands now? They are to the right of the word “Alberta” and a little up.

Even though that’s a big area, if you’re flying right over it in an airplane, when compared to the size of Western Canada, frankly, it’s a little hard to find it. So it’s not like Canadians are engaged in mass destruction of their natural ecosystems when so little area – relatively little – is actually being taken up with surface mining.

That raises an obvious question. If the oil sands are such a massive energy resource, doesn’t it seem a little odd that so much oil can come from so (relatively) little surface area? How can that be? Well, apparently the majority of the oil sands resources are so far below the earth that it isn’t even possible to surface mine it. Per Wikipedia,

“Eighty percent of the oil sands will be developed in situ [underground] which accounts for 97.5 percent of the total surface area of the oil sands region in Alberta.”

In other words, only about 2.5% of the surface area above the oil sands near Fort McMurray is ever going to be mined, the rest of the area is going to be drilled, which leaves the surface habitat virtually untouched (except for some roads and smaller facilities).

I’m not sure what the percentages are in other parts of the province, but the overall land area of our province that will ever be disturbed by open mining for oil sands is never going to be a very significant part of the total land area of our province. The overwhelming majority of Alberta’s surface will be untouched by oil sands development.

Now don’t interpret this as a blanket endorsement of all things related to the oil sands. They’ve made mistakes over the years and there’s always ways to improve their processes to further reduce the impact on the environment. I fully support all such environmental improvements. I’m just presenting this information to help keep everybody’s view of the devastation in perspective. A lot of surface area does get gobbled up with the surface mining for oil sands, but the total surface area appears to be comparable in size to one of the medium cities in our province. If we are going to bemoan such destruction of natural ecosystems by the oil sands, perhaps we should get equally upset at the cities that most of us live in.


Just for fun, see if you can use Google’s 3D view to figure out where the photos in the wired article was taken, and in what direction. I found photo number 3 relatively quickly, but I’m having trouble with the other pictures. Some of them are too close up.

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