Alberta Tarsands

Alberta’s oil sands are the world’s third-largest crude reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, oil sands emissions were 66 megatonnes, or 24% of Alberta’s total emissions and 9% of Canada’s total emissions. link  Not only are the Alberta tar sands the greatest pollution threat to the planet, they displace the greatest carbon sink we have to store carbon. This 17-minute video contrasts the damage at both ends – loss of habitat and creation of a carbon bomb, not to mention the cancer element to native populations. –View here   
(Note – tar sands are also referred to as oilsands)  


  • Environmental danger
  • Overview
  • Cancer link
  • Spills and leaks
 Environmental danger

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to
410 ppm over the last 160 years. The tarsands contain enough carbon to add 120 ppm

April 2017: Carbon footprint of Canada’s oil sands larger than thought. The State Department noted recent government studies of a different tar sands pipeline found that the project’s greenhouse gas emissions “may be 5 to 20% higher than previously indicated”. link

January 2013: 240 billion tons of carbon locked up in the tar sands. If released it would be more than enough to spike global warming to catastrophic levels. If all the bitumen in those sands could be burned, another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere and, even if just the oil sands recoverable with today’s technology get burned, 22 billion metric tons of carbon would reach the sky. link

Launching May 2013 in Canada, Europe and the U.S., presents up to date, accurate facts about Alberta’s tar sands to counter the high-level pro-oil sands lobbying ongoing in Canada, the U.S. and Europe around the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and Europe on the Fuel Quality Directive.

May 2012: Tar sands more polluting than other fuelsThe latest report finds crude oil produced from Canadian oil sands (also known as tar sands) emits 14 to 20% more planet-warming gases than the conventional oil that is typically found in U.S. refineries. Conventional oil can be put right into a pipeline, or you can process it and it can go into a pipeline that goes to a refinery. Bitumen from the oil sands is too viscous to flow, so you have to do some pre-processing. This involves what’s called upgrading, which is kind of like refining, or it involves diluting the bitumen with a light hydrocarbon diluent [like] a natural gas liquid…so it will flow through the pipeline.  link


December 2017: Alberta unveils rules for large carbon emitters. Canada’s main crude-producing province Alberta unveiled new rules on how it would charge large industrial emitters including the oil sands sector for carbon output, saying emissions will be cut by 19% by 2030. Environment Minister Phillips said the regulations will reduce Alberta’s emissions by 20 million tonnes by 2020 and 50 million tonnes by 2030. link

October 2017: Major blow to Canada as major tar sands oil pipeline cancelled. The long-term future of Canada’s tar sands suffered a blow when TransCanada announced a major pipeline project cancellation connecting Alberta to the Atlantic coast. Simon Dyer, Alberta director for the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental research group, said darkening prospects for the oil sands doomed the pipeline. “There does not appear to be a business case for the project,” he said. link

April 2017: Major oil sands shake-up. As global companies abandon the Canadian oil sands at a time of low oil prices and huge losses, some of them are also concerned that producing one of the world’s most carbon-laden fossil fuels may be bad business in a warming world. A wave of sell-offs began last year. The boom came and went. The reason is economics.  link

Environmental costs. 
Canada’s oil sands, a mixture of sand, clay, water and heavy oil (called diluted bitumen) contain the world’s second-largest concentration of crude at about 170 billion barrels. This oil is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil. Pumping it at a high temperature and high pressure for long distances is a relatively new and untested venture. Alberta has economically recoverable reserves are put at 300 to 400 years of production at current rates. In 2008 1.2 million barrels a day were produced. Canada‘s reserve is shown as 173 billion barrels, placing it second only to Saudi Arabia in global oil reserves. It is an expensive, energy-hungry process – the richest oil sand is about 10% oil, and it takes about two tonnes of it to make just one barrel of oil. Oil sands production is said to emit three to five times the amount of greenhouse gases than conventional oil production. Pollution from this process has brought, besides increases in cancer, deformed fish with tumors, popular fish with so much mercury they should not be eaten, and some hunters and trappers were saying the meat tasted unusual.  link 1   link 2  

February 2013: Oil sands mining uses up almost as much energy as it produceslink

January 2013: ‘Idle No More’ takes center stage in North America against tar sands oil. In an urgent pursuit for environmental justice and basic human rights, First Nations gather across North America under the banner of Idle No More   link

More problems
Other problems are fueling opposition to pipeline safety in general; spills and environmental destruction among them. The First Nations in particular have become a significant force for Enbridge to confront. The more liberal province of British Columbia is increasingly reluctant to host pipelines considered to be unsafe, and shipping off their coastline a threat to pristine shorelines.

 Cancer link

July 2014: Study finds tar sands harm health of First NationsThe report largely confirms what residents of First Nations tribes have long been saying: significant increases in illnesses in the communities, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, and mental illness, among others, can be clearly tied back to tar sands development 200 kilometres upstream along the Athabasca River. link 

November 2014: Oil sands linked to cancer-causing toxic air emissions. New federal government research has confirmed that oil sands tailings ponds are releasing toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Environment Canada report agrees with earlier research suggesting amount of toxic compounds emitted by industry has been dramatically underestimated. link

August 2010: Carcinogen levels in oil sands waste water increase. Levels of cadmium, lead and nickel in giant ‘tailings’ lakes have increased as much as 30% in four year according to new government data. The country’s five active oil sands mines released around 50,000 tons of potentially harmful pollutants in waste lakes between 2006 and 2009.  link

 Spills and leaks

July 2013: Tar-sands leak that can’t be controlled. Thousands of barrels of tar-sands oil have been burbling up into forest areas for at least six weeks in Cold Lake, Alberta, and it seems that nobody knows how to staunch the flow. An underground oil blowout at a big tar-sands operation run by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has caused spills at four different sites over the past few months.  link

June 2013: Huge Alberta pipeline spill raises safety questions. A massive toxic waste spill from an oil and gas operation in northern Alberta is being called one of the largest recent environmental disasters in North America. The spill is said to cover more than 1,000 acres. A recent investigation found that over the past 37 years, Alberta’s extensive network of pipelines has experienced 28,666 crude oil spills in total, plus another 31,453 spills of a variety of other liquids used in oil and gas production, from salt water to liquid petroleum. That averages out to two crude oil spills a day, every day. link

June 2012: Rainbow Lake spill among largest in North America.  A huge spill has released 22,000 barrels of oil and water into muskeg, an acidic soil, in the far northwest of Alberta. The spill ranks among the largest in North America in recent years, a period that has seen a series of high-profile accidents that have undermined the energy industry’s safety record. The Enbridge Inc. pipeline rupture that leaked oil near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, for example, spilled an estimated 19,500 barrels. link

June 2012: Industry figures show that at least 3.4 million litres of hydrocarbons have leaked from pipelines in Alberta every year since 2005  – link

September 2012: Shell admits to environment damage inevitable in oil sands. link
August 2012: Enbridge admits inadequate plans for potential spill.  link