The tar sands in northern Alberta have emerged as one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, and Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. Meanwhile, oil companies are recklessly developing the tar sands, with plans to increase production to a dangerous level of five million barrels per day or more by 2030, a 1500 per cent increase since 1999.

Whether you call them tar sands or oil sands, this resource is actually bituminous sand, a mixture of sand, clay, water and an extremely viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. Bitumen contains a noxious combination of sulphur, nitrogen, salts, carcinogens, heavy metals and other toxins. Each grain of sand is covered by a thin layer of water, all of which is enveloped in the very viscous, tar-like bitumen. In its natural state, it has the consistency of a hockey puck, so it cannot be pumped from the ground easily and cheaply like crude oil.

There are two ways to extract bitumen from the tar sands: open pit strip mines and in situ, or drilling, sites, both of which have extreme impacts on environmental and human health.

Surface Mining

Strip mining requires huge areas to be cleared of trees, then the water is drained from the muskeg and it, too, is dug up and hauled away. The underlying clay, silt and gravel is then scraped from the surface with bulldozers to expose the bitumen deposits. Giant shovels excavate the bitumen and load it onto giant dump trucks the size of small houses, which transport the bitumen to an extraction plant where heat and water separate the bitumen from the sand.

In Situ Extraction

In situ extraction, which accounts for the vast majority of tar sands development, is performed by drilling numerous wells into the tar sands deposit. Steam is used to heat and separate the bitumen deep underground, and the now viscous bitumen is pumped to the surface. Most in situ tar sands deposits are 350 to 600 metres below the surface.

At a time when Canada should be figuring out not only how to stem global warming, but how to adapt to a changing climate, we are destroying healthy, functioning ecosystems, rapidly increasing climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and perpetuating our dependence on oil.

Indeed, the market conditions and policies necessary to make the tar sands a cost-effective source of energy will almost certainly result in dangerous levels of global warming that will exceed two degrees Celsius, the internationally agreed upon limit that will prevent climate change from destroying the planet.

Is this the legacy Canadians want to leave future generations? Or is it better to limit the expansion of the tar sands and focus on developing a clean energy future?


The “wicked problem” of the tar sands is not going to be easy to solve, but the first step is for Canadians to have their eyes wide open to the full scale and scope of issues relating to climate change, land and wildlife impacts, air and water pollution, human rights violations, and dangerous economic risks.


While specific numbers are hotly debated by tar sands proponents, everyone agrees the climate impacts of tar sands oil are greater than conventional oil. The emissions from tar sands oil production are an average of three to five times more greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive than conventional oil,  and are the fastest growing source of GHG pollution in Canada.  In the last two decades, tar sands emissions almost tripled,  and projected tar sands expansion will double GHG emissions by 2020.

This rapid increase in GHGs is because there is not one single federal regulation to limit the amount of GHGs from tar sands development, permitting tar sands companies to continue to expand production – and greenhouse gas emissions – in perpetuity. In fact, the amount of GHGs from the tar sands is growing faster than in any other sector in Canada,  and accounts for the entire projected increase in Canada’s emissions between 2005 and 2020.

While other countries are on track to meet their GHG-reduction targets, tar sands expansion means Canada will only get halfway to its commitment to reduce GHGs 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, which are far below Canada’s original commitments under the Kyoto Accord.

Such a rapid expansion of tar sands development is part of a global energy scenario that would push average global temperatures as high as six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. According to theInternational Energy Agency, tar sands production would not exceed 3.3 million barrels per day if we are to have any hope of keeping the climate below the two degree threshold that has been recognized by the international community as necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Land & Wildlife

The tar sands deposits are located under the boreal forest, the second largest intact forest in the world and one of the largest sources of freshwater. The tar sands lie under approximately 142,000 square kilometres of Alberta, an area about the size of England. Open pit strip mines cover an area larger than Greater Vancouver, and in situ development will effect an area seven times larger than the strip mines.
The Alberta government already has approved tar sands leases covering 92,000 square kilometres  of Alberta’s northern boreal forest, an area the size of Indiana or Hungary.  This is roughly 60 per cent of the total area (~142,000 square kilometres) open to bitumen development in Alberta.

Although governments and the oil industry claim that all of the land disturbed by tar sands development will be reclaimed, little reclamation has already taken place. For instance, only 0.15% of the area disturbed by tar sands mining has been certified as reclaimed by the provincial government.  There is no requirement for tar sands companies to return the boreal forest to its natural state, only “an equivalent land capability” capable of supporting one or more uses that “existed prior to any activity being conducted on the land,” even though “the individual land uses will not necessarily be identical.”
Such massive industrialization of the landscape is destroying wildlife habitat, upsetting natural ecological and hydrological processes, and threatening numerous herds of Canada’s threatened woodland caribou and the health of the forest ecosystem.

Air & Water

Although government and industry claim that tar sands development is not polluting the air, land and water in the tar sands region, recent research indicates this claim is false.

In addition to greenhouse gases, tar sands operations release large volumes of acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the environment.  Bitumen production releases twice as much air pollution as conventional oil,  and Alberta’s emissions regulations are less stringent then the international standards. Even with higher allowable concentrations in Alberta, these thresholds were frequently exceeded by tar sands operators in recent years — with an increasing trend.

Two separate research studies, one by internationally recognized water expert Dr. David Schindler and another by Environment Canada, indicates that tar sands production is releasing various toxins, including napthenic acids and polycyclic hydrocarbons, into the air. They have been found in snow, water and lake sediments as far at 100 kilometres downstream of tar sands mines and upgraders.
Mining and processing tar sands also create a toxic sludge called tailings. These tailings – which contain water, sand, silt, clay, contaminants and unrecovered hydrocarbons,  including numerous toxins harmful to humans, plants and animals alike – are kept in large “ponds” created to store the waste indefinitely. Tar sands mines create as much toxic tailings every day as flows over Niagara Falls in 90 seconds.  The second largest dam on earth is holding back toxic sludge in the tar sands. The only larger dam is the Three Rivers Gorge Dam in China.

Tar Sands by the Numbers

  • There are approximately 176 square kilometres (68 square miles) of toxic tailings ponds in Alberta.
  • In 2011 the oil companies used 170 million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca River, about the same as 68,000 Olympic size swimming pools. Virtually none of it is returned to the ecosystem from which it came.
  • Tar sands companies currently extract 1.7 million barrels per day (BPD). A total of five million BPD has been approved, with another four million BPD awaiting approval. Actual production is slated to triple to more than five million BPD by 2030.
  • If Alberta were a country, its per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be higher than any other country in the world.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands has doubled since 1990 (to 37.2 MT in 2008) and is predicted to triple to 108 MT by 2020. This is twice the amount of GHGs emitted by New York City, and more than most of the world’s countries, including Norway, Finland and Sweden.
  • If we all the oil locked in the tar sands (1.63 trillion barrels), the average global temperature would increase 0.4 degrees Celcius—half of what we’ve already seen.
  • Each day more than 300 million cubic feet (91 million cubic metres) of natural gas is used to extract the oil in the oil sands. That’s enough to heat more than 3 million Canadian homes.
  • The second-largest dam in the world, second only to the Three Gorges Dam in China, was built to hold toxic waste back from flowing from the tar sands to the Athabasca River.