Canada’s oil sands – some more perspective

Previously I wrote about how the oil sands are often portrayed as earth-ravaging facilities even though, in reality, the overwhelming majority of oil sands development has a negligible impact on the surface of the earth.

I was inspired to dig a little deeper (pardon the pun) and look at a few more numbers.

Per Wikipedia – as quoted in the previous article – only 2.5% of the total area of oil sands could possibly be accessed through surface mining. Bear in mind, this is the total potential that could be surface mined, not the total that has been surfaced mined, or the total that is currently being surface mined. The other 97.5% is relatively “clean” because it leaves the surface more or less untouched.

But the part that disrupts the surface of the earth significantly disrupts the ecosystem, including displacing various animal species. Obviously these moral considerations need to be weighed carefully when evaluating the oil sands.

So let’s look at some of the numbers I brought up in the previous articles. How much land is 2.5% of the oil sands? The oil sands reside under 141,000 square km of Alberta. That’s a lot of land! But if only 2.5% of that could ever be surface mined, that represents only 3,525 square km.

That’s also a lot of land. It’s not as big as the greater Toronto area, but it’s still a lot of land.

That got me thinking, how does the total mineable surface area of the oil sands compare to forest fires?

In particular, what about the Fort MacMurray forest fire? How much area did that burn? It is estimated to have burned about 589,552 hectares. How does that compare to the oil sands? Well, 3,525 square km is equivalent to 352,500 hectares. Which means the Fort MacMurray forest fire damaged approximately…

589,552 hectares / 352,500 hectares = 1.67

… 67% more surface area than the total surface area that oil sands could ever possibly damage in their entire existence! One wildfire, in one province, in one year ravaged more surface area than the entire oil sands will ever ravage in all its years of existence. And if you look at the total hectares destroyed by forest fires per year (in another article I wrote) then you’ll see that the total amount of land destroyed by wildfires in the entire nation of Canada every year is vastly larger than the entire surface area ravaged by the oil sands. It’s a rare year in Canada where less than 1 million hectares of land are ravaged by wild fires.

We should rightly observe, though, that wild fires are not directly within our control, whereas human development most certainly is. Therefore, if we have a chance to minimize our impact on the ecosystem then we have a moral obligation to at least try to minimize that impact.


But here’s the question; what is the real, lasting, impact of the oil sands on the ecosystem? When a forest fire bulldozes its way through a large swath of land, how many animals die? How many nests are lost? How many habitats are destroyed? We probably cannot calculate the loss.

And yet it happens. Every year. Year after year after year.

But the forest flourishes. Species flourish. Animals relocate or rebuild their homes. It’s just part of the cycle. Even though this massive “beast” thrusts them out of their present situation, they roll with the punches and get on with rebuilding their lives and their ecosystems.

Compare that to the oil sands. Those developments were far slower than any wild fire. It’s taken years of development to expand as far as they have. That’s plenty of time for the animals to get out of the way, as compared to the sudden impact of a forest fire. Humans started dabbling in the area which would have put the animals on alert in the first place, and when the big machinery arrived I’m pretty sure they wandered out of the area right away.

And the fact that the total surface area of the oil sands is actually smaller than the surface are of the forest fire means that however far animals had to relocate due to oil sands development would have been less onerous on them than how far they had to relocate due to a forest fire.

Plus, as an added bonus, oil sands development – at least compared to forest fires – is incredibly slow and provides plenty of warning for the animals in that area. Compare that to a raging forest fire that can spread like, well, wildfire; providing little or no warning and killing untold animals on its way.

Animals would have more time, lots of warning, and a shorter distance to move in the face of the oil sands compared to an oversized forest fire. Given all of that, it would seem the impact of the oil sands on the ecosystem would have been far less disastrous than the impact of any one of the sizeable forest fires that are so common to Canada.

As usual, disclaimers are always necessary. There are other factors at play that impact the ecosystem. The tailings ponds, chemical seepage into the ground water, etc, etc, etc. As I disclaimed before, I’m not saying everything about the oil sands is perfectly squeaky clean; I’m just saying that it’s probably not as bad as so many people have come to believe it is.

At least, it disrupts less land that many of the large forest fires in Canadian history; less land than is disrupted in an average year in Canada.

And it disrupts less land than the greater Toronto area. Perhaps we should stop the development of the GTA?

I didn’t think so.