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Reducing the impacts of oil sands mining

Canada's oil sands (also called tar sands) are one of the largest oil deposits on earth. Mining destroys the peat marshes covering these deposits, and alters the water flows within a much wider area. Oil sands oil is controversial due to these impacts and the fact that higher greenhouse gas emissions are produced from this form of extraction than from conventional sources of oil. Wetlands International is exploring activities with Shell to limit impacts and enable restoration once mining has ended. 

Action Description:


Oil sands are sands or clay that are highly saturated with bitumen (tar-like petroleum) and mixed with water. These deposits underlie the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River regions of northern Alberta, Canada. Wetlands cover nearly half of the landscape, yet the services they provide are poorly understood. The landscape is covered by rain-fed peatlands and transitional peat marshes along small streams. These peat marshes are valuable for water regulation, carbon storage in their soils, and unique biodiversity.

Mining oil sands takes place on an enormous scale. It completely destroys all the natural features and functions of the landscape and causes extremely large carbon dioxide emissions. After mining stops, companies are required to restore the impacted areas. However, restoration is hampered by inadequate rules that do not require the restoration of peat and other environmental services that previously existed.

Our Views

Wetlands International is very concerned about the use of oil sands for energy due to the environmental damage and climate change impacts. We consider oil sands development to be inappropriate due to its high carbon intensity and the far-reaching and often irreparable impacts on the land, water and
ecosystems, especially wetlands. Internationally, we raise our concerns with partner NGOs for instance in the European Union regarding energy policy (view a letter).

At the same time, we take a pragmatic approach and try to minimise damage in the region’s wetlands. The reality is that oil sands will continue to be exploited for the foreseeable future.

See our position brief on oil sands for more details on our views.

Our Activities

We advise Shell's operations in the Athabasca oil sands from the stage of planning up to and including the exit strategy of the project. We are studying the wetlands here to understand their biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage functions. For this, we will not only take the immediate impacts on the area into account, but also wider impacts related to watersheds, species migration, and the global issue of CO2 emissions from the loss of peat soils. We will then use this information to assess the impacts from oil sands activities.

By raising awareness of the functions and services provided by wetlands, we aim to include this information in the decision making process on oil sands operations and incorporate it into restoration and mitigation plans. This ecosystem based approach to wetlands compensation will help minimize negative impacts by taking into account services such as habitat for plants and animals and water purification. This approach builds on internationally approved practices such as those declared in the Ramsar Convention and the Convention of Biological Diversity, to first try to avoid impacts on wetlands, then to mitigate impact on ecosystem functions, restore the functions and compensate for any losses.

Action Partners: