15 ways oil sands development impacts oceans

Stephanie Green, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, shares this Frontiers Focus on the effects of oil sands development on ocean ecosystems, from the March 2017 issue of ESA Frontiers.

North America contains some of the largest sources of bitumen—a thick, sticky petroleum extracted from land-locked clay and sand deposits known as oil sands. Bitumen must be heavily processed before it can be used as an energy source. Processed bitumen is set to play a larger role in meeting the global demand for fossil fuels, despite the potential environmental risks that its extraction and distribution pose.

Most oils sands deposits are far from the ocean, and so research into ecosystem impacts of oil sands development has focused on the land. But transport, storage, and the global effects of fossil fuel use put our oceans and coasts at risk as well.

This March in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, my colleagues and I examine how extracting, refining, and transporting bitumen products from oil sands can impact some of the world’s most biodiverse and productive ecosystems: our oceans. We review the current state of knowledge about 15 threats to marine life associated with transporting bitumen products to market via coastal shipping, and the effects of acidifying, warming, and rising seas caused by greenhouse gas emissions that intensify climate change.

We found key research gaps that need to be filled, such as bitumen’s toxicity to marine species. We also identified opportunities where existing research could be better used to inform decisions about extraction, transport, and energy alternatives. Both filling knowledge gaps and taking better advantage of the scientific knowledge we already have are two crucial steps toward making informed choices about energy development for the future.

March cover of Frontiers in Ecology and the EvironmentStephanie J Green, Kyle Demes, Michael Arbeider, Wendy J Palen, Anne K Salomon, Thomas D Sisk, Margot Webster, and Maureen E Ryan (2017) Oil sands and the marine environment: current knowledge and future challenges. Front Ecol Environ 15(2): 74–83, doi:10.1002/fee.1446

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