Oil Exploration Effects on Soil and Underground Water


Indeed, our lives, soil, underground water and the environment as a whole are greatly affected by the activities of oil exploration and production. Notably, oil exploration and production activities are very common in regions such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Oil exploration sites have proved to be very dangerous to the surrounding communities. The toxic materials coming from the exploration sites are very harmful especially if they are transported into the water bodies or if they seep into the soil. This paper addresses the potential effects of oil exploration activities in Canada’s specific regions.


Today, our lives, interactions and global politics rely greatly on oil. However, its exploration and production have caused detrimental impacts on our environment and lives as well. Canada is one of the largest oil producers globally with Alberta being one of the regions producing more oil (Wetherell, Cavanaugh and Payne, 2005). More so, Alberta is believed to play a major role with the exploration of oil sands in Canada (McLaren, 2014).This is because the oil industry in Canada is largely centered in Alberta. Other regions such as Saskatchewan and British Columbia also engage in oil exploration activities. Oil exploration activities have a wide range of effects on biodiversity including loss of soil fertility and water pollution and so on. When the oil spilled enters the soil, it increases the susceptibility of the soil to wind and soil erosions which in turn leads to a decrease in the productivity of the soil. Moreover, soil erosion and runoff may carry all the toxic chemicals and materials from the exploration site to the water bodies thereby causing various health complications to humans. This paper aims at providing exhaustive information on how oil exploration process affects soil and underground water in specific areas, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia regions. It also covers how the polluted water affects the human and marine lives, and also how polluted and affected soil interferes with the agricultural activities in the above mentioned areas.

Study Area

The paper mainly focuses on Canada specifically in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia regions.

Brief history of oil industry in Canada

The Canadian oil industry developed faster because of the country’s unique geography and geology. The oil industry has enabled Canada to be very distinct from her surrounding neighbors. The country’s oil sands and heavy oil resources form part of the greatest petroleum deposit in the world. Alberta has the enormous oil sands and this is what makes the country rich in oil. The emergence of oil industry in Alberta started with “the discovery of the Turner Valley field in 1914” (“Alberta”).


The effects of oil exploration on the ecosystem is a major concern of many individuals including the government, oil companies, environmentalists, as well as the society members. Oil exploration activities interfere with the soil nature and chemical composition, and affect underground water which in turn affected the lives of humans. Both the primary and secondary sources have been exhaustively used to gather adequate information on the topic.


Crude oil and oil spillage

Crude oil is unprocessed oil that is available deep beneath the earth’s surface, and it mainly consists of hydrocarbon compounds. Oil spills is a major challenge in the oil industry, and some of the causes include oil tankers faults, and natural and human activities on land among others. Oil spills are very dangerous to aquatic life as they may penetrate into the important organs of these organisms thereby destroying them. The seabirds, killer whales, and smaller organisms such as plankton and larval fish are greatly affected by oil spills. Oil spills also affect the plants in the sea by forming a thick layer on the water surface which in turn prevents light and gaseous exchange. As a result, the plants are unable to photosynthesize leading to their death.

Canadian killer whales are badly affected by oil spills
Canadian killer whales are badly affected by oil spills

Impacts of oil exploration on Soil

Undeniably, oil exploration has adverse effects on the soil. Generally, the soil is affected by oil exploration activities especially if these activities result in soil contamination with the petroleum products. More so, the soil is affected if oil exploration activities increases soil exposure to wind and soil erosion. In addition, the combination of soil horizons and elimination of vegetation during the oil exploration process also impacts negatively on the soil. Other effects of oil exploration and production activities that negatively affect the sol include interruption of biological soil crusts and loss of topsoil efficiency. To begin with, oil exploration activities lead to soil compaction and this is because of the construction activities near exploratory well pads. This would in turn diminish permeability and soils capability to grasp water thereby causing an increase in runoff. In addition, the digging and reapplication of soils during oil exploration and recovery process is more likely to cause the combination of soil horizons, leading to the unification of soil features and forms. Actually, this unification would change the physical features of the soil resulting in decreased permeability and enhanced runoff from the affected areas. The loss of vegetation affects nutrient cycles and stimulates the rate of soil loss through erosion, and it also reduces the availability of habitat for wildlife.

In addition, oil exploration activities also affect the soil fertility because these activities increase runoff. Soils compressed on roads and well pads may also result in runoff. According to Boesch and Rabalais (1987), the landfall of oil from the site as a spill, and the erosion is the possible ways through which the oil enters near-shore sediments. More so, runoff is known to be one major cause of water pollution since it transports soil, fertilizers and pesticides to nearby rivers and lakes. Agreeably, erosion and runoff are the leading effects oil exploration process that negatively affects soil fertility, and this also has significant impacts on agricultural productivity. Normally, oil exploration activities are characterized by the removal of the surface soil so as to establish well pads and access roads to help in the process of reaching the site. This is more likely to increase soil erosion which would in turn result in loss of soil fertility hence decreased agricultural produce. For instance, oil exploration activities in Northern Alberta have led to the construction of many roads seismic lines as wells (Krebs, 2008).

Furthermore, oil spill also affects soil in that it causes decrease in soil moisture, porosity, water holding capacity, and soil pH among others. The soil pH helps in assessing the presence of beneficial nutrients and toxic substances to plants. Soil pH is of great importance because it affects nutrient uptake by plants. Normally, it is determined with an H+ ion-selective glass electrode. More so, the spilled oil pollutes the soils making them less useful for agricultural activities. Also, the soil dependent organisms are adversely affected when soil is polluted.

Effects on Underground Water

Oil exploration also has various impacts on the underground water, and this is due to water quality degradation resulting from spills and cross-aquifer mixing among others. The pH of natural water is the measure of hydrogen ion concentration, and the optimal pH of water is approximately 7.4. Both extreme and low pH is harmful to marine life. The exploration activities also interfere with the flow and quality of water, for instance, the exploratory wellbores may cause contamination of the underground water, and they can also minimize pressure into water wells thereby affecting the quality of water. In addition, during oil exploration and recovery process, the quality of water can be affected by activities leading to soil erosion that can transport wastes into water bodies, and contaminant spills among other, and it is undeniable that soil pollution causes ground water pollution. The movement of toxins is based on their properties, for instance, they can move towards the same direction with the underground water. Arguably, the level of dissolved oxygen is determined by atmosphere, for instance, the waves can mix the atmospheric oxygen with river water thereby affecting the amount of oxygen dissolved. However, high levels of dissolved oxygen are unhealthy for aquatic organisms. Conductivity refers to the ability of water to conduct an electric current and it relies on the concentration of ions in water.

Oil exploration significantly contributes to the pollution of underground water, that is, underground mines and brines from the oil exploration cause underground water pollution (Ramachandra, 2009). Nevertheless, oil exploration activities may cause oil pollution which is a serious issue to the entire environment and its inhabitants. Notably, oil exploration activities impact negatively on underground waters through pollution resulting from oil waste dumping and oil spills. Oil pollution has diverse impacts on underground waters. For instance, when oil spills during the oil exploration and recovery process, it seeps into the underground and finds its way into the underground water system. Given that it takes long before the contaminated underground water is freshened, oil pollution especially in such water system is therefore very harmful. This is because this contaminated water can find its way into streams and wells which are the main source of water to the members of the community in that particular area. This water when consumed by individuals put their lives and health at risk because it has harmful chemicals. Moreover, when the contaminated water flows into the streams and well used by people in that areas, there would be increased cases of water borne diseases because community members have no alternative source of water and so they have no choice but to use it regardless of its harmful effects. This has changed the perception of community members about water as they no longer view water as the source of life but source of misery, diseases and death.

The environmental damage caused by oil exploration and production also affects humans in areas surrounding oil production site. For instance, runoffs caused by exploratory activities have dumped numerous toxic chemicals into nearly waters. Some community members depend on these streams to engage in various activities such as fishing. With oil on top, they catch fish and eat them and because the fish just like other water inhabitants, drink this polluted water making it unsafe for human consumption. Moreover, the hazardous materials and wastes used during oil exploration and drilling activity such as hydraulic fluids, used oil filter, and spilled fuel are released to the environment and they can be transported to underground water systems through erosion and runoff thereby putting the lives of individuals using this water at risk. Other waste materials that are very harmful include garbage and compost which may contain toxic chemicals that can enter the groundwater by leaching (Ramachandra, 2009). The surrounding individuals who rely on such water systems for their daily activities are exposed to long term health complications such as lung disease, liver and kidney damage, malformation, and brain damage among other chronic diseases.

In addition, the seismic surveys that are used during undersea oil exploration have adverse impacts on certain sea inhabitants such as whales and dolphins which greatly rely on their hearing capacity. Apart from fish, whales and dolphins, there are also some organisms living in the water that are adversely affected by the water contamination by oil exploration activities. Therefore, oil exploration activities affect the life of organisms living in underground water. These activities does not only affect humans but also water inhabitants that needs fresh water and quiet and safe environment. The temperature has an effect on the rate of metabolism and the growth of marine animals. It also influences photosynthesis process and the amount of oxygen dissolved. The temperature can be measured using a glass thermometer filled with mercury.


Following the adverse effects of oil exploration on soil, underground water and the entire environment, oil companies should come up with effective ways during the oil exploration and production process so as to protect the biodiversity. In addition, Canadian federal government should also develop safe ways to explore and produce oil so as to curb the adverse impacts of oil exploration to the environment and its inhabitants. Therefore, this paper is very important as it captures the impacts of oil exploration on the soil and underground water thereby giving the government an idea of the adverse effects of the whole process of obtaining oil. With this in mind, the government and oil companies can easily develop measures to curb this problem effectively. Notably, the Canadian federal government together with the governments of Alberta, British Colombia, and Saskatchewan has become more dedicated to pursuing Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) measure as a way of dealing with the adverse effects of oil exploration and production (Abdullah et al., 2011).


Oil exploration and production activities have adverse impacts on the underground water and the soil. Canada is one of the world’s major producers of oil, and so oil exploration is widely practiced in the country including regions such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The impacts to soil as a result of oil exploration activities are due to contamination of soil with toxic chemicals, increased vulnerability of the soil to erosion, and loss of topsoil productivity among others. Basically, the mixing of soil horizon changes the physical nature of the soil as well as its chemical components. This may lead to reduced capacity of soil to hold water thereby increasing runoff and this leads to loss of soil fertility and also pollutes underground water. Moreover, underground water is pollution by the spilled soil during oil exploration activities. This polluted water is very harmful to the health of human being and so the community members using the water from the polluted streams or well are exposed to chronic conditions such as liver and kidney damage, heart diseases, and brain damage among others. In addition, oil spill during exploration activities reduces soil moisture and the ability of the soil to hold water and this can cause adverse effects on the environment because of soil erosion and runoff. Nevertheless, oil exploration activities also interfere with the life of underground water inhabitants as they are unable to live in fresh water and quiet environment.

References Cited

“Alberta”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2015, Web.

“Causes and Effects of Oil Spill”. 2015, Web.

Abdullah, K. et al. (2011). Carbon Capture and Storage: Technologies, Policies, Economics, and Implementation Strategies. Boca Raton, Florida. CRC Press.

Boesch, D.F., and Rabalais N.N. (1987).Long-term Environmental Effects of Offshore Oil and Gas Development. Bloomington, Indiana. AuthorHouse.

Krebs, Charles. (2008). The Ecological World View. Clayton, Victoria. Csiro Publishing.

McLaren, Matthew E. (2014). The Values of Working in the Alberta Oil Sands: New Life Begins at 65. Boca Raton, Florida. CRC Press.

Ramachandra, T. V. (2009). Soil and groundwater pollution from agricultural activities. New Delhi, India: TERI Press.

Wetherell, D. G., Cavanaugh, C. A., and Payne, M. (2005). Alberta formed, Alberta transformed. Calgary, Alta: University of Calgary Press.