What You Need To Know About The Canadian Tar Sands

oil sands photo
This is a picture of Syncrude's base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur - it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left. Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The recent and ongoing Tar Sands Action in Washington DC has generated significant buzz around the Canadian tar sands and the extreme price we pay for gathering oil from them. The protest revolves around the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would speed the flow of crude oil from the tar sands to US refineries. However, there is much more to protest -- and you'll understand why after reading these 32 facts. alberta tar sands photo
Image via Google Earth

What And Where Are Tar Sands?

1. Tar sands, or oil sands, are a mix of clay, sand, water and oil -- specifically bitumen, which is a heavy, viscous material.

2. Tar sands can be found in many places worldwide, but the largest deposits are in Canada and Venezuela. There are some tar sands in the US as well, located mainly in eastern Utah.

3. The tar sands of Alberta, Canada, are located under Canada's Boreal forest, one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet.

4. Northern Alberta's oil sands deposits cover 54,000 square miles -- so large that the region is second only to Saudi Arabia as a potential petroleum source.

red oil barrels photo
Photo by ezioman via Flickr CC

Oil Industry and the Tar Sands

5. Unlike drilling for oil deposits and pumping oil from the ground, tar sands have to be mined to get at the bitumen and refine it into oil.

6. Bitumen is comprised primarily of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which can be highly carcinogenic (the EPA has classified seven PAH compounds as probable human carcinogens) and requires extensive processing to make it thin enough to flow through pipes.

7. Four tons of sand and soil are removed and dumped for every one barrel of oil gained from tar sands.

8. The majority of Canada's tar sands oil is exported to the United States. Approximately 20% of US crude oil comes from Canada, and 40% of Canada's oil production is from tar sands.

9. As prices for crude oil rise, tar sands-based oil production in the US has become more commercially attractive to both the government and industry.

duck photo
Photo by Tomorrow Never Knows via Flickr CC

Environmental Impact of Mining Tar Sands

10. It takes three barrels of water to extract one barrel of oil. More than 400 million gallons of water per day ends up dumped in toxic tailing pools

11. According to a recent Environmental Defense report, tailing ponds leak approximately 3 million gallons of contaminated water each day.

12. Environmental engineer John Stansbury notes that while TransCanada estimates the possibility of 11 serious spills on the pipeline during the course of 50 years, existing data suggests a more realistic estimate would be 91 accidents during a 50 year period.

13. Tar Sands operation is allowed to draw 349 million cubic metres (or 12.3 billion cubic feet) of water annually. This is twice the amount of water consumed by the entire city of Calgary. Approximately 82% of the water comes from an already dwindling Athabasca River.

14. 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.

15. Tar sands oil production emits 3 times more carbon dioxide per barrel than conventional oil consumed in the United States. Removing the carbon-storing forest ecosystem to get at the tar sands will be even more detrimental to carbon emissions levels.

16. The Alberta Tar Sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

17. By 2020 the Tar Sands will release twice as many greenhouse gases than currently produced by all the cars and trucks in Canada, if current development plans move forward as scheduled.

18. Emissions from expanding tar sands production and use will overwhelm emission cuts in energy production elsewhere, undermining Canada's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17% by 2020, as pledged under the Copenhagen Accord.

19. Tar Sands extraction utilizes enough natural gas to heat over 3 million homes in Canada. Using natural gas could both hasten the return to coal for domestic heating and electricity, as well as help push Canada toward building more nuclear power plants.

caribou photo
Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Wildlife and the Tar Sands

20. 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 toxic tailing ponds.

21. Caribou populations have been dwindling in Alberta for several decades, and may be gone entirely within 70 years -- or as little as 30 years in the Athabasca Oil Sands area. Research suggests that human activity related to oil production and the timber industry are primary culprits in caribou declines.

22. Oil contamination in the local watershed has led to arsenic in moose meat at as much as 33 times acceptable levels for consumption. Game animals have been discovered with tumors and mutations.

23. As the climate warms, northern forests will be more and more important to plants and animals shifting to the cooler north to survive. But tar sands activity will pollute and remove substantial amounts of that important habitat.

Local Effects of Tar Sands

24. Aboriginal populations downstream from tar sands operations are experiencing increased respiratory diseases, rare cancers and cardiovascular problems. The cause is suspected to be the toxic substances leached from Tar Sands production.

25. Substance abuse, suicide, gambling and family violence have increased in the tar sands, and thousands of workers brought in by oil companies face a housing crisis in northern Alberta.

26. More than $200 billion has been invested in the Tar Sands as of 2009. Only $1 billion (over 5 years) has been invested in alternative energy projects as of 2009.

27. In July 2008 alone, oil sands companies held a total of 36 meetings with Canadian ministers and government officials, while only seven environmental groups and associations reported lobbying activity.

28. The National Wildlife Federation points out that the project developer TransCanada has inflated the idea of job creation from tar sands production. A closer look at their analysis reveals gross exaggeration, including estimating that the 3,500 to 4,200 construction jobs would, in turn, create 22,582 retail trade jobs.

tar sands protest photo
Photo by tarsandsaction via Flickr CC

Standing Against Tar Sands

29. Indigenous groups have organized and protested to stop the expansion of tar sands operations.

30. In another Ipsos Reid poll from 2009 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.

31. In the most recent tar sands protest at the White House in Washington DC during late August, 162 protesters were arrested over three days. Meanwhile, over 2,000 people signed up to continue the protest. Fifty protesters will take to the White House each day, every day until September 3rd.

32. If the U.S. government approves the pipeline, preeminent climatologist James Hansen says that it will be "game over" for the global climate.

Tags: Activism | Conservation


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