Alberta’s Tar Sands: All You Need to Know

Alberta tar sands

In this video, you will find out everything you need to know about Alberta’s tar sands

After US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he directly took aim at the Alberta tar sands industry.1 This wasn’t limited to the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported Canadian oil into the US. Biden’s infrastructure plans focused on boosting clean energy and avoiding the use of dirty fuels, such as tar sands.2

The world is quickly shifting away from fossil fuels due to the urgency of climate change. So, why are fossil fuel industries, such as the Alberta tar sands industry, supported by some and criticised by others? To answer this, it is important to understand the industry further and the issues involved.

How big are Alberta’s tar sands?

Canada is one of the largest oil producers in the world. The tar sands industry – also known as the oil sands industry within Canada – is primarily based in the Alberta province. The oil reserves in the province are estimated to be the third-largest in the world – after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – at around 170 billion barrels

The tar sands industry, directly and indirectly, employs over 100,000 people across the region. It contributes significantly to the provincial budget. It has made Canada the fourth-largest oil producer in the world in recent years. 

Oil is also Canada’s biggest export earner. The overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of its oil reserves are located in tar sands, and 98 per cent are exported to the US. In 2019, Canada produced nearly five million barrels of oil per day.3

Oil sands production: When can we replace it?

Without a shift away from fossil fuels, Canada could continue pumping millions of barrels of oil for over 100 years. Under the worldwide Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to cutting its CO2 emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, compared to the emissions levels in 2005. But it missed its 2020 carbon emissions target due to the tar sands industry. It is also on track to miss its 2025 emissions target.4

canadian forest and tar sands

Where are the oil sands located in Alberta?

Alberta is one of thirteen provinces and territories in Canada. The oil sands industry is located around three regions in western Canada: the Athabasca River, Cold Lake and Peace River. It covers mostly Alberta and some parts of Saskatchewan province. It covers a combined area of over 142,000 square kilometres. For comparison, the entire state of Florida is 170,000 square kilometres.5

solutions to stop deforestation

Oil sands production and our ecology

Unfortunately, the oil sands industry is also located in the middle of Canada’s pristine and ecologically vital forests. The country is home to the world’s largest ecologically intact boreal forest, with 54 per cent of the world’s total. The forests are regarded as one of the largest absorbers of carbon dioxide in the air, second only to the Amazon rainforest worldwide.6

oil sands and forest fires

But, approximately 775,500 hectares of trees have been degraded or destroyed through fires and industrial development of tar sands over the past two decades. Critics expect more deforestation in the region if oil sands production is allowed to increase. More than 12.5 million hectares of pristine land in the region have faced habitat disruption, mainly due to tar sands development.7

Oil sands production could also acidify an area almost the size of Germany, studies show.8

Alberta tar sands

Who owns Alberta’s tar sands?

Contrary to popular opinion, foreign companies own over two-thirds of tar sands companies operating in the region. A majority of the profits from the industry also flow out of the country, according to a recent report. The Canadian government is spending taxpayers’ money to defend the industry, even though it enriches companies abroad, critics say. Five major oil companies – Suncor, CNRL, Cenovus, Imperial Oil and Husky Energy – control 60 per cent of the tar sands production. Foreign companies own a majority share in all of them.9

Oil sands industry projects

Over 100 active oil projects run across the tar sands industry, owned mostly by a few companies in Canada, the US and China. The vast majority of the bitumen and oil extracted from tar sands is exported to the US for further refining.10 The tar sands mixture needs a special energy-intensive process for extraction due to its depth.11

oil sands and moose population

Canadian oil sands and environmental groups

The tar sands industry has also been highly environmentally destructive, critics say. “It’s had a huge impact on caribou, bison, moose, birds, fish, the water, the forest. It’s affected our ability to travel, to gather food from the land—it’s really overwhelming”, says Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation from the region.12

The problem with the oil sands industry

Alberta’s tar sands industry has been labelled “the world’s most destructive oil operation” by critics because of its environmental impact. There is no doubt that it contributes to jobs and earnings for the Canadian economy. But, its long-term impact is far more destructive and a challenge for the entire world to grapple with.13


  1. Keystone pipeline: Biden “to cancel it on his first day.” (2021). BBC News. [online] 18 Jan. Available at:
  2. Waldman, S. (2021). Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Would Make Electricity Carbon-Free by 2035. [online] Scientific American. Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
  3. Government of Canada (2017). Crude oil facts | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Available at:
  4. Trudeau unveils Canada’s net-zero by 2050 plans. (2020). BBC News. [online] 19 Nov. Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
  5. NatGeoUK (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] National Geographic. Available at:
  6. Sierra Club Canada. (2010). Tar Sands. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
  7. World Resources Institute. (2018). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. [online] Available at:
  8. (2018). Oilsands could eventually acidify an area the size of Germany, study says. [online] Available at:
  9. The Georgia Straight. (2020). Report shows 70 percent of Canadian oilsands production is owned by foreign companies and shareholders. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
  10. NatGeoUK (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] National Geographic. Available at:
  11. (n.d.). Oil Sand – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
  12. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at:
  13. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: