Alberta Oil Sand worker gets caught off guard while working.
Photo credit: Canada Alive!

The liability falls where in Alberta?

COVID-19 may have the capability in changing the perspective of mining the oil sands in Alberta.

The Canadian province of Alberta said on May 6, 2021, that it will allow oil sand mining companies to change how their liability will be calculated when oil prices begin to fall. Alberta holds just under $1 billion Canadian dollars ($822.37 million US dollars) in security for oil sands mines. If old formulas were used, more money would be able to be made and repaid back to oil companies harvesting the product. That money could then cover the cost of environmental cleanup in the area from strip mining northern Alberta from Imperial Oil IMO.TO, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd CNQ.TO and Suncor Energy SU.TO. More oil harvested would also mean a cheaper price. Approximately 1.5 million barrels per day would be surfaced.

Almost every sector of the economy would benefit from oil sand development. But through all the positive economic growth Canada would receive, it is necessary to look at the impact on the environment it will have.

The refined oil will be transported through pipelines. Any released bitumen through a spill, leak, or rupture can contaminate the surrounding land or water. Tailing ponds to store the liquid to retrieve the oil can be shown to leak chemicals into the surrounding water supply like the Athabasca River and the Mackenzie River. Additionally, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted in the area shows that the overall quantity of chemicals (PAH) is lower than that which naturally occurs in recovering petrol. A change in formula can have health risks to the surrounding population.

These chemicals can cause upper respiratory issues on site. Moreover, the chemicals that are released through a spill, leak, or rupture, that do not work directly on-site will soon have more complicated issues like headache, nausea, skin rashes, and respiratory symptoms which coincide with exposure to crude oil.

Working on the oil sands can have an increased health risk, and during the current COVID-19 pandemic it will make it much worse. According to unnamed contractors, workers did not have inadequate distancing, testing, or sanitization Those that currently work at CNRL Horizon in the Alberta Oil sands have stated, “We don’t feel safe here, but we keep working because everybody wants to work,” one contractor at Horizon said.

It is difficult for these workers to bring complaints about these safety issues to those higher on the corporate ladder,  due to fear of losing their job. The liability does not fall on the oil sand operators anymore regarding the environment or the health and safety of the workers.

“We’re all feeling like, head down, blinders on. Don’t even look around you and just try to get through your shift without getting sick.”

It is frivolous to think that mining for crude oil will disappear in the next 10 years. But companies should have federal and provincial policies in place to protect the health of their workers – and the general public – from irreversible harm. “Personally, with experience in seeing all sides of corporate and environmental relationships, I know products must exist for now. But it is difficult for me to understand why an unexplored market could be so scary to a company when investments are made all the time for new products. 

Do you think you could help me understand?


Elizabeth is a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability student with a focus on corporate resource use. Their background is in the field of Environmental Studies with a double minor in Biology and Geographic Information Systems from Central Michigan University. Utilizing her skills in such a critical mindset, Elizabeth is determined to explore what the Earth has to offer to the corporate world and sustain life for the future to come. In her free time, she likes to learn about microorganisms, explore Northern Michigan, and find new hobbies to pursue in this time of isolation.