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Oil sands and the environment

At Imperial, we believe that we can have reliable and affordable energy, a strong economy and a clean environment, and we're committed to making it happen.

About 80 percent of our research dollars are focused on developing innovative oil sands technologies. In addition to the research that is carried out at our own Calgary research laboratory, we sponsor a wide range of energy research programs at Canadian universities and other institutions.

  • We are the founding sponsor of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta. Through the centre, university experts are conducting groundbreaking research to address a variety of environmental challenges associated with oil sands development, including climate change.
  • Learn more about innovation and research at Imperial
  • Find more details about the technology behind some of our environmental innovations in the oil sands innovation section


Canada’s oil sands currently account for one-tenth of one percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The nature of the oil sands makes them energy-intensive to produce – energy is needed to transport the earth, to break it down into smaller pieces, and to heat the water used in the separation process. Energy is also used in other processes such as producing the hydrogen needed to upgrade the heavy crude.

Since 1990, Canada’s oil sands industry has reduced emissions by more than 30 percent per barrel, but we recognize that there is still a significant amount of work to be done in this area. We are committed to reducing GHG emissions at our oil sands facilities by improving energy efficiency and investing in the development of game-changing technologies.

Here are some of the ways we are working to reduce environmental impacts in our oil sands interests:

  • Cogeneration is key to reducing our energy requirements by providing a cleaner way to produce electricity and steam at the same time. Cogeneration facilities at our Cold Lake in-situ operations have helped us reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent compared with generating electricity from coal-fired plants and processing steam from conventional boilers.
  • Our Kearl oil sands mining project and Nabiye expansion at Cold Lake include a combined 270 megawatts (MW) of cogeneration. Energy-saving cogeneration (to produce steam and electricity) helps reduce the energy draw from the Alberta electricity grid and to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  • We use a proprietary paraffinic froth treatment technology at Kearl to remove fine clay particles and water from the bitumen. This process uses less energy than an upgrader and results in lower GHG emissions. Kearl is the first oil sands mining operation that does not require an upgrader to make a saleable crude oil. Processing bitumen once, rather than twice (in an upgrader and a refinery), reduces life cycle GHG emissions.

Water & tailings

Oil sands water use

Oil sands production requires water to recover bitumen from the sand. The industry uses both groundwater (water from underground formations) and surface water (water from lakes and rivers) to extract bitumen from the oil sands.

An important concern is the impact of oil sands development on the Athabasca River in Alberta. Oil sands mining projects in the Fort McMurray area (like our Kearl project) draw their water from the river. About three percent of the average natural flow of the Athabasca is dedicated to the oil sands industry – one of the lowest river allocations in Canada – and our industry uses half of this allocation.

For in-situ recovery (like our Cold Lake facility), water is heated and converted to steam, which is then injected into underground reservoirs that contain bitumen. The bitumen is heated by the steam, enabling it to flow to a producing well. Imperial has been a pioneer in water recycling technology and we are steadily reducing the amount of water we need.

At Cold Lake, the amount of fresh water we use to produce a barrel of bitumen has been reduced by almost 90 percent since the project’s inception in the 1970s. In addition, approximately 95 percent of the water that is recovered from oil production is treated, recycled and re-injected as steam, significantly reducing the need for fresh water.

Conservation initiatives are underway that, if successful, will reduce fresh water use at Cold Lake by up to 30 percent from current use.

At our Kearl oil sands mining project, we are applying creative ways to reduce the project's impact on water resources. Using a water storage system, we will reduce water withdrawal from the Athabasca River during low-flow periods.

Tailings ponds

Tailings ponds are common to all surface mining operations. Tailings contain the water, clay, sand and residual bitumen that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand. The ponds help separate the solids from the water so the water may be reused. They also serve as storage facilities, allowing water to be stored for low flow periods when water availability is restricted.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water can be released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse. The possibility of seepage is anticipated when tailings ponds are engineered and built, and containment systems and monitoring wells are required.

During the early years of operation at Kearl, tailings from the bitumen extraction process will be stored in a carefully engineered above- ground tailings area, located more than 29 kilometres (18 miles) away from the Athabasca River.

After this initial period, the settled ‘mature’ fine tailings will be gradually removed and thickened and then placed back into the mined- out pits. These thickened tailings will be placed in thin layers and allowed to dry into a solid state. Eventually they will be covered by sand and topsoil to enable a reclaimable area containing both upland and wetland features. The tailings area will be reclaimed over several decades.

We fund a research pilot on tailings management at Natural Resources Canada’s CANMET research facility in Devon, Alberta. The pilot work has been used to determine the effectiveness of different options to de-water the tailings stream from the paraffinic froth treatment process.

Land & reclamation

Canada’s oil sands are located beneath approximately 140,000 square kilometres (about 54,054 square miles) of land. Approximately three per cent of this area (about 4,802 square kilometres or 1,854 square miles) contains mineable deposits. Approximately 20 percent of these deposits are accessible via surface mining while eight percent of oil sands reserves will be developed in-situ, which causes limited surface disturbance.


Oil sands mining currently affects approximately 530 square kilometres – an area about half the size of the City of Edmonton. Reclamation is ongoing as oil sands operations are completed in a given area. So far, about 12 percent of the total mineable area that has been disturbed since the 1960s has been reclaimed, although few have been submitted to the government for reclamation certification because they remain within the boundaries of active mining operations.

One area that has received reclamation certification from the Alberta government is Syncrude’s Gateway Hill. About 22 percent of Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site has been reclaimed since it began operations about 30 years ago, and reclamation continues as land becomes available.

Imperial’s plans for our Kearl oil sands project include a major commitment to progressive land reclamation where land used early in the project will be reclaimed as mining is expanded to new areas. We’ve also worked closely with neighbouring oil sands operations to make sure that drainage, reclamation and closure plans are integrated. We also continue to engage local stakeholders in reclamation planning so that reclaimed lands will provide improved wildlife capabilities and will be accessible for traditional land use by the local community.


Eighty percent of oil sands reserves will be developed in-situ, which causes limited surface disturbance.

  • We have developed a megapad approach at our Cold Lake operation with multiple wells drilled from a single location to reduce our surface footprint, create more efficient resource recovery and reduced development costs.
  • At our Cold Lake Nabiye expansion we’re further reducing the number of well pads to access the resource and, as a result, reduce our surface disturbance by more than 40 percent.
  • Ongoing reclamation at our Cold Lake operation has already resulted in more than 1,500 acres, or 19 percent, of disturbed land being permanently reclaimed, including planting more than 800,000 trees and shrubs. The predominant species planted are Indigenous to the area: white spruce, aspen, Jack pine, birch, willow and alder.
  • Reclamation plans at our Cold Lake operation are designed to address local environmental ecosystems such as wetlands.  We’ve teamed with Ducks Unlimited Canada on a pilot project to determine how best to restore the natural functions of a wetland when reclaiming a well site in the area. Early indications from ongoing monitoring have shown positive results with signs of re-vegetation.