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Environmental Challenges

While the oil sands industry has made significant technological advances, the growth of annual production of oil sands presents several environmental challenges to land, water, air, and energy conservation. CanmetENERGY provides solutions and knowledge for addressing these critical oil sands environment issues while also ensuring it remains a valuable product for Canada. These challenges are described below.


Oil sand extraction results in the accumulation of large amounts of residual waste known as tailings, which contain a mixture of water, clay, un-recovered bitumen and solvent, and dissolved chemicals, including some organic compounds that are toxic. These tailings are stored in large ponds similar to water dams. The water released from the ponds can be recycled and reused in oil sand processing, however the majority remains as mud almost indefinitely.

Due to the nature of tailing ponds, there are serious environmental and economical challenges faced by the industry. Without significant improvements in tailings management techniques, reclamation of these tailing ponds back to boreal forest or equivalent land capability will be a very difficult task.

CanmetENERGY has been striving to develop effective solutions to manage these tailings ponds and have made significant progress. One of the most recent technologies in tailings management is the concept of dry stackable tails, which offers great advantages to current technologies as it can reduce the amount water required by half and allows for quick reclamation of disturbed land.

For more detailed information on research in this area visit Extraction and Tailings.


Oil sand is a unique source of hydrocarbons, which is made up of a complex mixture of sand (83%), water (4%), clay (3%) and bitumen (10-12%). In order to unlock the bitumen (a black thick viscous substance) trapped inside this mixture, hot water is used. On average it takes anywhere from 7 to 10 m3 of water to extract 1 m3 of bitumen.

Rapid expansion of oil sands projects are causing great strains on fresh water resources, which leads to ecological and environmental issues.

Furthermore, water recycled from tailings is reused in the extraction process and due to constant recycling and usage the quality of water changes significantly. Water management is core and imperative for the continued development and success of oil sands projects.

CanmetENERGY studies the chemistry of water and its use in oil sands including:  

  • Presenting comprehensive reviews of water treatment needs for bitumen extraction and reclamation
  • Building models to better understand the characterization of water
  • Implying advanced analytical techniques to determine the fate of chemicals present in recycled water

For more detailed information on research in this area visit Water Management.


Oil sands require a significant amount of energy to process and upgrade bitumen to petroleum products suitable for market. The energy intensive process results in increased air emissions. The oil sands industry currently contributes a significant amount to Canada’s national air emissions portfolio.

Oil sands production constitutes approximately 4% of national sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions, 1% of national nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions, 2% of national volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions and 3% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Based upon current projections of production growth by industry, oil sands emissions in 2010 are expected to constitute 5% of SOx, 7% of NOx, 11% of VOCs, and 5% of GHGs of the national emissions portfolio respectively (Environment Canada Pollution Data Division). Oil sands mining and in-situ production are currently projected to grow as much as five-fold by 2030.

Our researchers and scientists are striving to reduce the energy requirement needed to process bitumen both during extraction and upgrading thereby also reducing emissions.

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