New Frontiers for Black Gold

Extracting oil from tar sands is technically difficult, environmentally destructive, and expensive. It’s also lucrative.

Extracting oil from tar sands is technically difficult, environmentally destructive, and expensive. It’s also lucrative. No surprise, then, that countries around the world are sizing up their own tar sands for exploitation.

In the US, approximately 32 billion barrels of oil are contained in eight deposits in the Colorado River watershed of eastern Utah. Although the reserves are not of the same scale as the Athabasca oil sands, investors are eagerly eyeing the deposits. Last September, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved Canadian company Earth Energy Resources’ proposal to set up a tar sands mine in Grand and Unitah counties. The company, which claims to be “committed to environmentally sustainable production of oil from oil sands,” says it has developed its own extraction technology called the “Ophus Process” that can recover the water used in the bitumen separation process and eliminate the need for toxic tailings ponds.

photo of a giant earthmoving machine in a black pit

Keith Stewart, a Greenpeace campaigner, is skeptical. He says companies have been claiming for 40 years that they will soon have the technology to eliminate tailings ponds. “There are 170 square kilometers of toxic tailings ponds in Alberta already that they don’t even know what to do with,” Stewart says.

In Venezuela, some 400,000 barrels are already being extracted each day from the substantial Orinoco oil sands. That number pales in comparison to recent findings that suggest the country stands to become the world leader in unconventional oil reserves. The Chávez government claims that OPEC has confirmed a newly discovered bitumen reserve of more than 300 million recoverable barrels. If accurate, “that places them above both Canada and Saudi Arabia in proven reserves,” says Macdonald Stainsby, coordinator of

Whether Venezuela will push forward with extracting that oil, however, is unclear. The Venezuelan government is a massive contradiction. “They played an important part in the [climate] talks at Cochabamba last April,” Stainsby says. At the same time, “they were the ones in Cancún who insisted that the lie of carbon capture and sequestration be included in the deal.”

In Madagascar the situation is dire, Stewart says. “It is an area of incredible biodiversity, but very weak governance, and I shudder to think what it might look like there.”

Madagascar plans to mine about 200,000 barrels per day, making its mines only slightly smaller than the Suncor or Syncrude mines in Alberta. “It is a much denser, heavier bitumen, meaning it will require more water and more energy to produce and relies on a much smaller river for water to do it,” Stewart says.

In the last decade, some environmentalists have argued that the approach of peak oil and an increase in petroleum costs will propel a transition to clean energy. Not so, Stewart says. The tar sands rush shows that we can’t rely on the world running out of oil as a change agent: “We may be running out of easy oil, but we’re not going to run out of oil. We’re going to run out of space in the atmosphere and oceans to put the CO2 long before we run out of oil in the ground.”

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