The Facts About the Alberta Tar Sands

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In Canada, both the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals are trying to shrug off National Geographic magazine’s recent photographic expose of the massive devastation caused by mining the Alberta Tar Sands. Facts just don’t matter if they might undermine profits.

Alberta Tar Sands Facts – Judge for Yourself
From West Coast Climate Equity

Both of Canada’s major party leaders are defending the continuance and further development of the Alberta Tar Sands by saying that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will collect carbon dioxide emissions from Tar Sands operations and make them environmentally and socially sustainable. Both leaders know that this technology is currently not available and that, if successfully developed, it will be very costly and “the first commercial CCS plant won’t be on stream until 2030 at the earliest” [MIT].

Also not addressed is the vast technological difference between CCS for coal and CCS for Tar Sands, the latter being so much more complex because of the number and diversity of emission sources and locations.

As well, when speaking about the Tar Sands, our leaders do not address the loss of more of our boreal forest and its biodiversity and carbon sequestration values, which is already providing extensive natural carbon capture and storage. Our leaders also play only minor homage to the development of renewable energy, which does not require any carbon capture and storage.

Greenhouse gas emissions:

  • The Alberta Tar Sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and stand as the single greatest obstacle to Canada meeting its global climate change responsibilities.
  • Producing a barrel of Tars Sand oil emits three times more greenhouse gases than producing a barrel of conventional oil, making Tar Sands oil some of the dirtiest on the planet.
  • If current development plans proceed, by 2020 the Tar Sands will release twice as many greenhouse gases as are currently produced by all the cars and trucks in Canada.
  • As one of the largest, most intact old-growth forests left on Earth, containing more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem, the boreal forest provides ecosystem services that are globally important in mitigating climate change. The more forest disturbed for the Tar Sands, the more stored carbon released.
  • In order to prevent catastrophic consequences from global warming, developed countries are required to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to 25%-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Conservative federal government’s emissions plan calls for a reduction of 20% below 2006 levels by 2020, which is equivalent to an increase of 2% over 1990 levels.

Resource usage:

  • Two tons of oil sands are needed to produce one barrel of oil (roughly 1/8 of a ton). Just one of the four operating mines in Alberta has excavated more soil than the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the world’s 10 biggest dams combined.
  • Tar Sands extraction utilizes enough natural gas to heat over 3 million homes in Canada. Its rapid depletion of natural gas is not only hastening the return to coal for domestic heating and power generation, but it is also driving Canada’s so-called nuclear renaissance. Canada may well become the first nation to use nuclear energy not to retire fossil fuels, but to accelerate their exploitation.
  • 2 and 4.5 barrels of water are used to produce each barrel of oil. Every day, Canada exports one million barrels of bitumen to the United States and three million barrels of virtual water.
  • Tar Sands operations are currently allowed to draw 349 million cubic metres of water per year, twice that utilized by the city of Calgary. An estimated 82 % of this water comes from the Athabasca River, which is already facing loss of glacial water from the Colombia Ice Fields due to global warming.

Environmental concerns:

  • Industrial development of the scale of the Alberta Tar Sands could push the boreal ecosystem over its tipping point and lead to irreversible ecological damage and loss of biodiversity.
  • About 90% of the water used to process the Tar Sands ends up in acutely toxic tailing ponds that line the Athabaska River and threaten the health of the whole river basin. For every barrel of oil extracted, six barrels of tailings are produced.
  • According to a recent Environmental Defense report, the ponds are already leaking over 11 million litres a day of contaminated water into the environment. Should proposed projects proceed on schedule, 2012 would see a five-fold increase, to over 25 billion litres a year.
  • Tailing ‘ponds’ cover more than 50 sq km and can be seen from space. One tailings pond at Syncrude’s mining operation is held in check by the third-largest dam in the world.
  • Tailing ‘ponds’ are so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing on them. Regardless, they result in over 8,000 oiled and drowned birds annually and in one incident last April, 500 ducks died after landing on one of Syncrude’s ponds, which did not have noisemakers set up.
  • A recent report estimated that, because the Tar Sands belt is on the migratory route of North American ducks and other waterfowl, over the next 30 to 50 years, as many as 166 million birds could be lost, due to loss of breeding areas and from birds landing in tailing ponds of waste that look like real bodies of water.
  • Canada has no national water policy and one of the worst records of pollution enforcement of any industrial nation.
  • Because of the effects of global warming, intact northern forest ecosystems will become very important to the forest birds and wildlife that will need to migrate northward in order to survive.
  • Addition to the already massive pipeline network that exists, Tar Sands development plans include pipeline expansions and additions from northern Alberta into the U.S., and to B.C. The latter could see the building of a supertanker port in Kitimat and oil tankers exporting oil via the Inside Passage of northern B.C. waters.
  • A recent recommendation from the Cumulative Environment Management Association (CEMA) asking for a freeze until 2011 on sales of mineral rights in an area marked for conservation was rejected by the Alberta government. CEMA’s members represent government agencies, environmental groups, aboriginal communities and around 30 oil companies. Millions of dollars have been spent commissioning studies and making plans.

Health concerns:

  • Downstream aboriginal populations are experiencing increased respiratory diseases, rare cancers and cardiovascular problems, suspected to be caused by toxic substances that have leached downstream from Tar Sands production.
  • Oil contamination in the local watershed has led to arsenic in moose meat – a dietary staple for the First Nations peoples – up to 33 times acceptable levels. Game animals are being discovered with tumours and mutations.
  • Deformed fish have been found in nearby Lake Athabaska and drinking water has been contaminated.

Youth and future generations:

  • The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) provides the basis for global action “to protect the global climate system for present and future generations”. Canada is a member.
  • The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states, “Present generations should take into account possible consequences for future generations of major projects before these are carried out.” Canada is a member.
  • Last December, the BC Youth Parliament carried a resolution opposing the Alberta Tar Sands, 57-20.

Political greenwashing:

  • Just like filtered cigarettes tried to make people believe it was safe to smoke, so goes the lie of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – capturing CO2 and pumping it underground – for the Tar Sands. Canadians are given the impression that CCS is a silver bullet that’s just around the corner.
  • According to WWF Canada, the science tells us that it may be technically feasible (though exceedingly expensive) to capture 90% of the carbon emitted by a new coal-fired generator, but just 10% of the greenhouse gases associated with oil from tar sands. The governments of Canada and Alberta know this.
  • “Oil sands operations are very diverse (both geographically and technically) and only a small portion of the carbon dioxide streams are currently amenable for carbon capture and storage,” states a January 2009 report, Canada’s Fossil Energy Future: Carbon Capture and Storage, based on the findings of a joint Canada and Alberta task force on CCS.
  • Even if CCS proves feasible for some of the Tar Sands emissions, since there are no commercial scale projects of CSS for tar sands, costs remain highly uncertain, with best estimates that CCS would increase production cost by 30%-60%. Who is going to pay for that?
  • A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that “the first commercial CCS plant won’t be on stream until 2030 at the earliest.” Even Oil-giant Shell “doesn’t foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050.” We need to start reducing GHG emission now.
  • Science is currently unable to predict precisely the possible repercussions of storing CO2 underground. Once buried it may leak out slowly or have a more disastrous potential, for example in the case of an earthquake. This raises issues around ownership and liability.  The above report also states that “liability will transfer to relevant government jurisdictions once a project moves to the post-abandonment phase.”
  • Even if CCS were practical and affordable with the tar sands, we’re still left with the downstream emissions from its combustion by cars, truck and planes.
  • The Conservative’s emission plan calls for intensity based targets for the tar sands industry. This means that emissions have to be reduced per barrel, but overall emissions are allowed to grow as industry increases output.

Viable alternatives:

  • If the billions of dollars involved were redirected into renewable energy, we could be well on our way towards a sustainable future.
  • Expansion of the renewable energy industry would create jobs that could replace those lost if the Tar Sands were phased out and, at the same time, would address the global warming crisis. According to analysts from the Centre for American Progress, every investment of $1 billion in clean energy programs creates nearly 5,000 more jobs than traditional infrastructure spending.
  • Canada should invest at least the dollars slated for CCS and Tar Sands tax incentives to renewable energy research and incentives and join the International Renewable Energy Association so as to connect globally with renewable energy development. To not do so is to take a step backwards environmentally and economically, which will likely result in renewable energy investments flowing to the US and other countries. (So far the Canadian government has refused to join this organization.)

Additional information and points:

  • Canadians deserve a more honest debate about tar-sands development. If the leaders of our two major national parties cling to the outdated notion that we need to promote and endure environmental devastation to grow the economy, then let them say so.
  • The current Canadian government is not seen as independent from oil interests. In July 2008 alone, oil sands companies held a total of 36 meetings with Canadian ministers and government officials, according to recently disclosed lobbying reports, while only seven environmental groups and associations reported lobbying activity.
  • Canada’s Fossil Energy Future: Carbon Capture and Storage report states, “petroleum resources are expected to dominate Canada’s energy supply needs for the next several decades.” It appears that the current government has little intention of moving aggressively ahead on renewable energy sources.
  • More than $200 billion has been invested so far in the Tar Sands. The Alberta and federal governments have made a $2.5 billion “investment” in CCS, an unproven technology that will directly benefit the fossil fuel industry – a relatively small investment to keep Tar Sands projects moving ahead. Meanwhile the Canadian government is putting only $1 billion (over 5 years) towards developing carbon-free technologies such as wind and solar, has cut funding to its Renewable Power program, ecoEnergy, and has not allocated any finding to ‘shovel-ready’ wind-energy projects.
  • While other governments push forward with hard caps on emissions, the Canadian government lobbies the US for softer “intensity-based” emission targets.
  • Should taxpayers have to pay to reduce the pollution created by the high profit fossil fuel industry?
  • Even if CCS were possible and feasible, it cannot mitigate the negative impacts on the boreal forest.
  • The main development incentive for the Tar Sands is the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (ACCA) which, since 1996, has applied to both surface and underground mining in the oil sands. It allows the individual oil sands projects to write off all of their capital costs before they start to pay income tax.
  • The increasing exploitation of Canada‘s tar sands amounts to a massive investment – locking in a high carbon North American transportation system at the same time that we need to urgently tackle climate change. There can be no energy security, or indeed any kind of lasting security, without a stable climate.
  • It is time that Canada take future generations into account and halt future Tar Sands projects and phase out existing ones.
  • Enforcing adequate protection measures for the Boreal Forest, a treasure that does not just belong to Alberta or Canada but to the whole planet and to future generations, is a responsibility that Canadians owe to the world.
  • A recent Ipsos Reid poll found that overall, 64% of Canadians say development of Alberta’s tar sands should be halted until a clean method can be found, as do 47 per cent of Albertans. Three-quarters of Canadians say we should only adopt stimulus measures that are environmentally sustainable. It is time our government listens to us.
  • If the fossil fuel industry is allowed to proceed with its current plans, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada will grow to 827 million tonnes in 2010, 44% beyond what Canada is permitted under the Kyoto Protocol and a far cry from the 80%-100% reduction that scientist say is essential to stabilize the climate. If the world burned all of Canada’s estimated fossil fuel deposits, global concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere would rise by about 20% beyond 1990 levels.


  • I say STOP! After watching “Petropolis” and CBC’s the “Nature of Things documentary” about the Tar Sands, I just feel devastated. This is such a horrible venture – I don’t see anything positive at all about this and I feel that any one that does see anything positive just simply needs to do some homework. Please respect our planet – it is the only one that we have.

  • Bravo TomB-you get the Dunning-Kruger award for this week. Sure we’re destroying the forest, Alberta, the aboriginal people, the water resource, and, incidentally, the planet’s life-support systems through runaway climate disruption, but, hey, we’re getting enough money from it to repair the damage. Of course there is no evidence that our wealth is being used to fix the multiple ecological crises, and a plethora that it is going, instead, straight into the pockets of greedy parasites, but mendacious verbiage is the Right’s native tongue, is it not? Whenever I’m briefly deluded by a second’s optimism concerning humanity’s predicament, I just have to think of people like you, and the sorry fact that you have a vote, and I return to my more rational despair.

  • There is a critical need for Canadians to raise their collective voices loudly at all levels of government to create a plan to close down the tar sands projects over the next 5 years, implement an emmissions tax on goods being produced offshore that are brought into Canada, transfer a significant portion of revenues from oil production into a national treasury, and work with Canadians to prepare for re-localizing the production of food, goods & services through out Canada.
    The federal government is not interested in representing the people – it is representing oil companies. We have become an “oil state” and unless there is dramatic change soon, will experience significant downfall similar to other oil states ( Mexico, Venezuela)in the past.

  • I say carry on. Without the money coming in from this venture Alberta wouldn’t be left with much. sure its a hard circle to get out of but one day we will run out and byb then we will have found other means of energy, most likely funded by the profits from the oil sands themselves. Sure we are doing damage to the environment but at the same time raising the resources to save it. There is only one way down this street, nothing anyone can say can stop it, so I say lets get it over with and move on.

  • It just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I don’t understand the need to develop the tar sands, when the money could be better spent on renewable resources. The only benefit I can see for the Canadian government would be that they are trading internationally, but there are so many more negatives. What about us Canadians? Don’t we matter to our government?

  • Sounds really bad never realized the scope of the excavating.There is so much money involved here it will be hard to stop it ,kind of a catch 22.If the price of oil goes up more people will use less oil but the tar sands will be full ahead.If oil goes down the tar sands slowdown considerably but people get back to using more oil and gas.The government should reward people some how for using less oil based products in there lives .This way people would become less dependent on oil and the enviornment would benifit.