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Information - Stop the tar sands

Background - 30 September, 2009


What are the tar sands?

Tar sands or oil sands are a complex mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen - a form of crude oil so heavy and thick it won't flow in its natural state. Tar sands deposits exist around the world, but the largest known are in northern Alberta, Canada - and have become the site of the largest industrial project on the planet. Back to top

What are the consequences of the tar sands:

Boreal forest destruction

The majority of tar sands deposits are found under boreal wilderness. The depths at which these deposits lie requires everything on the surface to be scrapped away in order for extraction to be possible - destroying the wilderness forever. When current and future tar sands development are combined the area of destruction will be the size of England. Back to top

Fresh water depletion

The Athabasca River is one of the longest undammed rivers in the world. Tar sands projects currently remove about 370 million cubic metres of fresh water each year - for free, and when current projects are combined with planned tar sands projects the total amount will be 529 million cubic metres of water per year. This is more water than is used annually by a city of around 2 million people. The depletion of this source of freshwater is especially troubling given the predicted scarcity of freshwater that will result from population growth and climate change. Back to top

Greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change(GHGs)

Extracting and processing tar sands oil is much more energy intensive than conventional oil and results in between 3 to 5 times more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) per barrel of oil produced. Most statistics on the amount of emissions currently produced by the tar sands only refers to processing and don't include the GHGs released through the destruction of boreal forest involved in tar sands development. The global boreal forest ecosystem is the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon in the world and preserving boreal forest is critical in protecting our planet from climate change. Back to top

Toxic lakes

90% of the water used in tar sands operations is never returned to the river, but is diverted to toxic lakes - also called tailings ponds. Already covering more than 130 square kilometres along the Athabasca River, these huge "ponds" can be seen from space. The sludge in the ponds is acutely toxic to aquatic life, birds, terrestrial wildlife and humans, their location along a major flyway, makes the ponds appear to be welcome havens of fresh water, especially to migrating waterfowl. In May 2008, at least 1600 ducks are known to have died in one incident. There is currently no proven plan to deal with these toxic lakes. Adding to the danger, the contaminants seep into groundwater, the surrounding soil and back into the Athabasca River itself. It is estimated that tailings ponds are already leaking more than 11 million litres every day, and it is acknowledged - even by the tar sands industry - that the damage will be irreversible. Back to top

Wildlife and habitat destruction

Canada's boreal forest is a crucial habitat for some of the world's largest populations of wildlife and many species are in decline as a result of industrial development in northern Alberta. They include: caribou, lynx, marten, fisher, wolverine, boreal chickadee, rose-breasted grosbeak, yellow-bellied sapsucker, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper and various woodland warblers. The Athabasca River flows from the area of tar sands development into the Peace-Athabasca Delta. This is the largest boreal delta in the world and one of the most important waterfowl staging and nesting areas in North America. Nearly 50 per cent of the 700 bird species that regularly occur in the U.S. and Canada rely on the boreal for their survival. More than 300 species of birds regularly breed there each spring. Back to top

Why is the tar sands a climate crime?

If production increases as planned, annual tar sands emissions are expected to quadruple from 27 to 126 million tonnes by 2015. In order to avoid runaway climate change we need to be drastically reducing these kinds of emissions - not increasing them. Continuing to develop the tar sands is pushing us closer to catastrophic climate change, which will mean death and displacement for millions of people. Allowing projects, like the tar sands, which will contribute towards this future, to continue is a crime and our world leaders must be held responsible for stopping it. The best chance we have is coming up at the end of this year when the UN Climate Summit will be held in Copenhagen. World leaders must attend this meeting and agree to a just and equitable deal that will drastically reduce our emissions and prohibit projects like the tar sands, whose emissions are planned to increase. Back to top

Who profits from the tar sands?

Companies from all over the world - from the United States and Abu Dabai to South Korea, Norway and China - own huge chunks of Alberta's tar sands real estate. Back to top


'Dirty Oil: How the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis' - Download Back to top

Media Contacts

For media information please contact:

Jessica Wilson Media and Public Relations Officer, Vancouver (604) 253-7701 ext. 21 (778) 228-5404 (mobile)

Catherine Vézina Media and Public Relations Officer, Montreal (514) 933-0021 ext. 17

Alex Paterson Media and Public Relations Officer, Toronto (416) 597 8408 ext. 3052 (416) 524 8496 (mobile) Back to top