Research Report

Upgrader Alley: Oil Sands Fever Strikes Edmonton

Mary Griffiths
Simon Dyer
Copyright Date: Jun. 1, 2008
Published by: Pembina Institute
Pages: 68
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Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. 1. Oil Sands Fever Strikes Edmonton
    (pp. 1-4)

    The congestion and environmental impacts of the oil sands industry that is all too familiar in the Fort McMurray region is coming to Edmonton. Upgraders are large-scale industrial complexes similar to oil refineries, and several of them are planned for the area just northeast of Edmonton, known as Upgrader Alley. A staggering $46 billion for upgraders and associated projects are lined up for the Edmonton Capital Region.¹

    Upgrader Alley is centred in the area branded by government and industry as Alberta’s Industrial Heartland (see Figures 1 and 2). If all the planned projects proceed, within a decade there will be...

  4. 2. Upgrader Alley Overview
    (pp. 5-12)

    In the past most upgrading was conducted in the Fort McMurray area as an integrated component of the extensive open pit mining of oil sands. Some companies are now choosing to locate new upgraders in the Edmonton region to avoid competition for workers and the high cost of doing business in the chronically strained Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray. The area around Upgrader Alley has a skilled workforce, land that has been zoned for heavy industry, the necessary infrastructure (roads, rail, electricity) and proximity to fresh water. Pipelines bring in the bitumen and natural gas and...

  5. 3. Impacts on the Land
    (pp. 13-16)

    “Overall growth pressures in the Industrial Heartland … are creating competition for land resources, resulting in known and potential impacts to wetlands, groundwater, soils, habitats and landscapes in general.”36

    Much of the area now zoned for industrial use in the Industrial Heartland region is agricultural land that continues to be farmed. The most obvious impact of Upgrader Alley is the permanent loss of this good agricultural land. The loss of this land is a loss to the province. While individual farmers may sell out for a profit, they are often very reluctant to leave.

    Many people still live close to...

  6. 4. Air Quality
    (pp. 17-24)

    Several health and environmental problems can arise from the types of emissions produced by upgraders and other industrial sources in the Upgrader Alley area, so the public is naturally concerned about air quality.52

    The main emissions of concern from the upgrading process are sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, nitrogen oxides53 and particulate matter. Other emissions include volatile organic compounds (such as benzene),54 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Some of these primary emissions combine to create secondary pollutants. Nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ground level ozone. This causes photochemical smog in summer...

  7. 5. Greenhouse Gases
    (pp. 25-26)

    The large amounts of energy consumed in the upgrading process produce very large volumes of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the most important one being carbon dioxide (CO2). In fact, with the expansion of upgrading and associated industries, the region could become a significant contributor to Canada’s GHG emissions. Figure 10 shows the estimated greenhouse gas production from operations at eight upgraders.109 Between 2015 and 2020, it is estimated that the upgraders in Upgrader Alley could be producing approximately 45 megatonnes of GHG emissions each year. If no efforts are made to limit or capture those gases, they could contribute about 18%...

  8. 6. The Demand for Water
    (pp. 27-36)

    Upgrading bitumen requires a lot of fresh water. The total licensed allocations and applications for the eight upgrader projects for which information is available, is about 114 million cubic metres (m³) or 14 billion litres a year (see Table 5). If the upgraders use current technology, they will return about 25% of that water to the river. As shown in Figure 11, they could permanently remove from the river nearly 80 million m³ of water a year when they are all operating (for example, between 2015 and 2020).117

    For comparison, the City of Edmonton withdrew and treated almost 132 million...

  9. 7. Cumulative Impacts
    (pp. 37-38)

    The cumulative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the development planned in Upgrader Alley and the surrounding region will be enormous. They will be driven by a similar surge in bitumen extraction in northern Alberta. Alberta Environment’s Cumulative Effects Management Framework attempts to address some of the issues, but it does little to limit the effects on land. It allows air pollution to increase. The discharge of contaminants to the North Saskatchewan River will be reduced, but river flows will also be lower. The framework provides some limits to the environmental impacts of development, but it does not take an active...

  10. 8. Why the Rush?
    (pp. 39-40)

    If all the projects for which applications have been submitted are approved, the rapid pace of growth in Upgrader Alley will mimic that in Fort McMurray. If the rate of development were somewhat slower, there would be more time to develop and implement plans to reduce the impacts.

    The air, land and water in Upgrader Alley are already being degraded. The government is trying to limit impacts through its Cumulative Effects Management Framework. This effort is commendable, but while caps on a limited number of air pollutants are proposed to come into place in 2009, they will still allow considerable...

  11. 9. Want More Information?
    (pp. 41-42)

    Visit for the Pembina Institute report Oil Sands Fever and Oil Sands Fever — Blueprint for Responsible Oil Sands Development, photos, videos and other information and reports on oil sands.

    Support our work. For more information or to make a donation to the Pembina Institute, please visit

    Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association,

    Government of Alberta. 2006. Investing in our Future: Responding to the Rapid Growth of Oil Sands Development — Final Report,

    Government of Alberta. 2007.

    Government of Alberta Hydrocarbon Upgrading Task Force,

    Alberta’s Environmental Plan to Deal with the Cumulative Effects of Development,


  12. Endnotes
    (pp. 43-56)