Tar Sands

The Tar Sands: A Local and Global Concern

The tar sands are huge deposits of bitumen—a mix of clay, water, sand and oil—that is turned into oil through complex and energy-intensive processes that cause widespread environmental damage. Small particles of sand are coated with heavy oil, with a thin layer of water separating the two. The sand and water must be separated from the oil, producing four tons of sand for every barrel of oil extracted. Another three barrels of water must be removed from the river for each barrel of oil. The 2010 Survey of Energy Resources describes the reserves: [1]

Natural bitumen and extra-heavy oil are characterised by high viscosity, high density (low API gravity), and high concentrations of nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and heavy metals. These characteristics result in higher costs for extraction, transportation, and refining than are incurred with conventional oil.

The largest deposits of tar sands in the world are in Canada. Unlike drilling for oil deposits and pumping oil from the ground, the tar sands typically require huge mining projects to access the bitumen and refine it into oil.

In Alberta, the excavation of the tar sands pollutes the Athabasca River and fills the air with toxins. The tar sands are found mainly under Canada’s Boreal forest,[2] requiring the forest to be clear-cut to allow the excavation of the bitumen. The ecosystems of the North face irreversible damage, and the companies’ promises of rehabilitation and reclamation remain unfulfilled. In 2008, only 0.2% of the land disturbed by tar sands mining was designated reclaimed, and even there the “complex of forests and low-lying wetlands has been transformed into a dry, hilly upland with new trails for human use.” The spokesperson of Syncrude, the company that owns the reclaimed land, proudly said, “If people aren’t looking closely, it blends into the natural landscape.”[3] Over 65,000 hectares of forest have been lost already, with little hope of recovery. [4]

The environmental, social and health costs of the tar sands in Canada are tremendous and multilayered.

In any discussion of climate change, the tar sands are of the utmost importance. Every barrel of bitumen produced from the tar sands emits three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil.[5] In total, the tar sands are expected to emit 108 million tons of GHGs annually by 2020, about one fifth of Canada’s entire carbon footprint.[6] Already, this project emits more carbon than all of Canada’s cars, at a rate of 40 million tons per year.[7] Because of the tar sands, Canada’s emissions have grown more since 1990 than those of any other G8 nation—a total increase of 24.1% between 1990 and 2008—and Canada has one of the world’s highest per capita carbon footprints.[8] Former climate scientist James Hansen wrote in the New York Times that, “If Canada proceeds [with this development], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”[9] The tar sands are a project with extraordinary global impacts that threaten runaway climate change.

The tar sands also have dangerous localized impacts near where they are mined. First Nations communities in the tar sands area report unusually high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases, and fish that live downstream of the development are often malformed and inedible.[10] The high concentration of development in one watershed results in correspondingly high levels of contaminants and heavy metals, and the ecosystem is less able to flush them out of the region. Indeed, a 2009 study found a two to threefold increase in summer mercury levels in the river below the tar sands, along with large increases in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, potent atmospheric pollutants and carcinogens. Similar contaminants were present in snow and ice.[11]

Much of the excess water from the production process ends up in huge tailing ponds, which kill birds that land in them and “are suspected of seeping chemicals into groundwater.”[12] These tailing ponds contain over 720 million cubic meters of water, covering over 130 million square kilometers of land. In the forty years of development, not a single tailing pond has been cleaned enough to be designated as reclaimed.[13] Environmental groups have presented strong evidence of tailing pond leakage, and oil companies have recognized the existence of the problem.[14] In total as many as 166 million birds could be lost over the next 30 to 50 years due to habitat loss and tailing ponds.[15] Furthermore, the economic benefits promised to native communities up north have not necessarily materialized, and the development comes at a tremendous human cost. The Pembina Institute highlights the serious health concerns,[16] including,

  • A 30% increase in cancers in Fort Chipewyan compared with expected rates over the last 12 years.
  • A three-fold increase in leukemias and lymphomas.
  • A seven-fold increase in bile duct cancers.
  • Other cancers, such as soft tissue sarcomas and lung cancers in women, were also elevated.

The development of the tar sands threatens communities across Alberta, pollutes the local environment, and contributes to global climate change.


[1] World Energy Council. “2010 Survey of Energy Resources” (London: World Energy Council, 2010) 123. <<http://www.worldenergy.org/documents/ser_2010_report_1.pdf>>.

[2] Sierra Club Canada. “Tar sands and the Boreal Forest”. <<http://www.sierraclub.ca/en/tar-sands/publications/tar-sands-boreal-forest>>.

[3] Hildebrand, Joyce. “Reclamation Illusions in Oil Sands Country: Lack of Legislation, Financial Preparedness, Undermine reclamation Efforts.” The Parkland Institute. Spring / Summer 2008. <<http://parklandinstitute.ca/post/story/reclamation_illusions_in_oil_sands_country/>>.

[4] Timoney, Kevin P. and Peter Lee. “Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence” (The Open Conservation Biology Journal, 2009, 3) 65-81. <<http://cahr.uvic.ca/nearbc/documents/2009/Alberta-Tar-Sands-Industry-Pollute.pdf>>.

[5] Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. (Vancouver: Greystone, 2010) 3.

[6] Schindler, David. “Tar sands Need Solid Science” (Nature 468, 25 Nov 2010) 499-501. <<http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7323/full/468499a.html>>.

[7] Greenpeace. “Tar sands: Learn About”. <<http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/campaigns/Energy/tarsands/Learn-about/>>.

[8] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Report of the individual review of the annual submission of Canada submitted in 2010” 21 April 2011. <<http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2011/arr/can.pdf>>.

[9] Hansen, James. “Game Over for the Climate” (New York Times, 9 May 2012). <<http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html?_r=2&emc=eta1>>.

[10] Schindler, David. “Tar sands Need Solid Science” (Nature 468, 25 Nov 2010) 499-501. <<http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7323/full/468499a.html>>.

[11] Liberal Report from the Study of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development on the Impact of Oil Sands Development on Canada’s Freshwater. “The Hidden Dimension: Water and the Oil Sands” 15-17. <<http://francisscarpaleggia.liberal.ca/files/2010/08/The-Hidden-Dimension_Water-and-the-Oil-Sands.pdf>>.

[12] Schindler, David. “Tar sands Need Solid Science” (Nature 468, 25 Nov 2010) 499-501. <<http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7323/full/468499a.html>>.

[13] New Democratic Report on the Standing Committee Review of the Impacts of Oil Sands Developments on Water Resources. “Missing in Action: The Federal Government and the Protection of Water in the Oil Sands” 13. <<http://www.billsiksay.ca/images/issues/NDP%20Report_Missing%20in%20Action_The%20Federal%20Government%20and%20protection%20of%20water%20in%20the%20oil%20sands.pdf>>.

[14] Liberal Report from the Study of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development on the Impact of Oil Sands Development on Canada’s Freshwater. “The Hidden Dimension: Water and the Oil Sands” 15. <<http://francisscarpaleggia.liberal.ca/files/2010/08/The-Hidden-Dimension_Water-and-the-Oil-Sands.pdf>>.

[15] Wells, Jeff Ph.D. “Danger in the Nursery: Impact on Birds of Tar sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest” (National Resources Defense Council Report, Dec 2008) iv. <<http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/borealbirds.pdf>>.

[16] Droitsch, Danielle and Terra Simieritsch. “Canadian Aboriginal Issues with Oil Sands: A Compilation of Key Issues, Resolutions and Legal Issues” (The Pembina Institute: Sept 2010) 2.