Alberta Oil Sands Development: Risks to Canadian Boreal Ecosystems

The bitumen (oil sand) deposits of northeast Alberta are profound and generally acknowledged as the second largest remaining global reserve of oil.  The size of the resource combined with the region's skilled workforce and proximity to the United Statesmake Alberta's oil sands perhaps the most attractive unconventional oil deposit in the world.  Recently, significant oil sand investment from China into Alberta has demonstrated the importance of Alberta's bitumen reserves as a strategic fuel source to emerging mega-economies The vast majority of Alberta's oil sands are yet to be developed due to the high cost of production relative to conventional reserves.  The lag in Peak Oil forAlberta's oil sands will create high economic and political pressure to develop the resource to help fill the gap left by declining availability of conventional reserves. Increasing anxiety about the security of Middle East oil is another factor contributing to the increasing availability of United States and Chinese risk capital to develop this resource (Figure 8-1).

The infrastructure, resource demands, and effluents associated with production of Alberta's oil sands could be highly detrimental to wildlife and other environmental values, especially if ecological considerations are marginalized in the rush to develop the resource.  In contrast, best management practices and an expanded protected areas network have the potential to offset at least some of the environmental impacts, and the high value of the resource and the region's stability should provide the economic and institutional ingredients needed to achieve high environmental standards.  Indeed, access to key markets such as the United States may require ambitious environmental efforts due to the increased ecological literacy of consumers. 

In this Chapter, we explore the environmental impacts of bitumen development in northeastern Alberta and assess the potential effectiveness of best practices, access management, and protected areas network expansion.  Ecological consequences of historical development, including both conventional and bitumen oil extraction, are first chronicled to provide context.  We applied the ALCES' land use simulation tool ( to project the ecological impacts of future anticipated development in the region and assess the role of best practices in mitigating risk to ecological indicators.  We acknowledge the willingness of the Alberta Land-use Secretariat ( to provide us with Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) data to complete these analyses.  We further discuss the potential design and function of an expanded protected areas network.  The land use simulations and conservation planning analyses that we present were completed to inform the Alberta Land-use Framework (ALUF), a regional land use planning process being coordinated by the Government of Alberta.  We conclude the Chapter by describing the Framework and, more generally, the role of proactive planning in balancing the economic and ecological consequences of developing the world's remaining hydrocarbon reserves.