The Alberta oil sands are in the news a lot lately. It seems like you're either seeing some impassioned plea by environmentalists for people to boycott the oil sands from their Georgetown, Ontario real estate or an impassioned plea from the oil companies that they're doing necessary work that really doesn't hurt anyone. Who, if anyone, is right? What are the oil sands anyway? How is the oil extracted and who uses it? These are important questions you need to ask if you want to understand what's going on. We can answer some of them for you.
Oil sands, which are also known as tar sands, are very thick deposits of crude oil that have been mixed with sand, clay, and water to form a viscous substance called tar or bitumen. These deposits were previously known as tar pits and left alone, because there was no way to get it out, refine it, and get it to your condominium in Toronto for use and still make a profit. In recent years, however, new technology and the dwindling of standard oil reserves has enticed oil companies to extract and refine oil sands and still maintain a profit margin.
The problem with turning this viscous mess into usable oil is that is requires a lot of energy to extract from the ground. Extracting and refining tar sands generates 10% and 400% more greenhouse gas than normal oil depending on the efficiency of the company's methods. Normal oil flows into tanks under its own natural pressure but tar sands must be encouraged along with injections of steam, solvents, or hot air. Oil sands that are closer to the surface are strip mined, with huge swathes of rock cut away, leaving the area barren and unsuitable for habitation by animals, much less a likely spot to build Arlington real estate. Companies working on the Athabaskan oil sands in Canada use this method.
Once the bitumen is extracted from the ground, it has to go through a process called upgrading, where water and impurities such as sand is removed from the bitumen and it is purified and hydrogenated, which uses a lot of energy and water - much more than your Tankless water heater at home.
The reason Canadian oil sands production is so often in the news is that it is the only country currently extracting oil from tar sands on any sort of scale. Almost half of all oil produced in Canada comes from tar sands and most of it is exported to the United States - more than is even used in Canada. Therefore from the viewpoint of some people who live in Brampton real estate, Canada is suffering all the environmental impact of oil sands refinement while the United States is getting all the benefits.