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Surprising Science

Canada’s Oil Sands: One Handsome Devil

The abundance of oil in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, might fill state and private coffers but will the profit come at the expense of sustainable environmental policies?

What’s the Latest Development?

Extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands is heating up, which might mean big money for some and environmental peril for all. The U.S. State Department recently applied the brakes to a pipeline stretching from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, after learning that a Nebraska aquifer would be put at risk. The company that proposed the pipeline, Trans Canada, says it will work around the problem. Exxon Mobile and China have begun investing heavily in oil extraction companies.

What’s the Big Idea?

The tar sands in Alberta are the world’s third-most plentiful source of fossil fuels, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. While opening Alberta to extraction could provide freedom from Middle East oil, and billions in revenue for Canada and private energy companies, the environmental toll could be staggering: In addition to setting back the adoption of renewable energies, getting one barrel of oil out of the sands requires 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 55 gallons of fresh water and 20 percent more carbon than refining light crude oil.


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