If you could defuse one of the world’s biggest carbon bombs, wouldn’t you?

Suncor Operations in Alberta Tar Sands. © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Aerial view of Suncor Millennium tar sands mining operations north of Fort McMurray. © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Each day, our window for saving the climate — and the billions of lives that depend on it — gets a little bit narrower. While people all around the world are taking action, oil companies are trying to light the fuse of one of the world’s biggest carbon bombs.

Deep in western Canada, on lands where Indigenous communities have lived since time immemorial, sit the Alberta tar sands. The tar sands are vast oil fields and mines in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Seen from the sky, the tar sands reach beyond the horizon and seem to go on forever, resembling a painful scar on the Earth of epic proportions. Nearby riverbeds are visible as water levels strain under industrial use. Chemical runoff pools collect in massive toxic lakes that stain the landscape. Lingering in the air above (and in the surrounding communities), there can be a sharp smell like burned tires, causing a searing feeling in the lungs.

Experiencing all this for the first time can be overwhelming and traumatic — even difficult to believe. It’s not what comes to mind when people from around the world imagine Canada’s crystal clear rivers and lakes, the evergreen forests teeming with life, or the breathtaking beauty of popular national parks little more than a stone’s throw from this environmental nightmare.

So what are the oil sands and how big are they?

The tar sands, sometimes called oil sands, are a massive site of oil extraction in Alberta. They cover an area larger than England and are one of the biggest industrial projects on the planet.

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What is tar sands oil and why is it so bad for the environment? 

The type of oil in the tar sands is called “bitumen”. It is extremely heavy (like tar) and difficult to extract. Getting it from deep in the ground to the surface can use up massive amounts of water — enough to rival what a small city may use on a daily basis. Even more water and energy is needed to refine it into anything resembling what goes into your gas tank. The amount of climate-polluting greenhouse gases emitted per barrel of tar sands oil can be 30% higher (throughout its life cycle) than conventional oil.  

What is the impact of the tar sands on climate change and the boreal forest?

Canada’s oil and gas sector is the largest and fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, accounting for 26% of the total. The tar sands are a key culprit. Between 1990 and 2018, tar sands production increased by 456%. The industry’s carbon footprint is greater than New Zealand and Kenya combined. 

Nature advocates estimate that the industrial development and wildfires in the tar sands region have cleared or degraded nearly two million acres of boreal forest since the turn of the millennium. This puts vital habitat for birds, caribou and other animals at risk. It’s also a climate issue since the boreal forest is a vital carbon sink.

The world can’t afford to expand the Alberta tar sands, not if we want to preserve this planet for future generations. Current generations are already being impacted by the biodiversity crisis and climate change and its effects on sea level rise, drinking water, disease and extreme weather events.

How do the tar sands violate Indigenous rights, and how are communities fighting back?

Yes. Throughout the years, the tar sands have encroached on Indigenous Peoples’ traditional lands and contaminated the environment and wildlife these communities depend on for their culture and way of life. Tar sands chemicals have further been linked to higher rates of cancer in Indigenous communities and dangerous air pollution.

And the effects of the tar sands don’t stay in Canada. Globally, Indigenous communities and the Global South are on the frontline of climate impacts. In 2017, Indigenous leaders from the Pacific Islands came face-to-face with the tar sands, a culprit in the planetary warming driving rising sea levels, which in turn are having a devastating impact on their homes and families right now. Learn more about their emotional journey below.

Indigenous Peoples are also leading the resistance against tar sands projects that violate their rights. Roughly 150 Nations have signed a Treaty against Tar Sands Expansion. Groups like Indigenous Climate Action, the Braided Warriors, the Tiny House Warriors and others are resisting pipelines like the Trans Mountain Expansion and forging Indigenous-led solutions.

What are the key projects that would expand the tar sands?

The stakes are high in the tar sands — for the communities and for the world. But instead of slamming on the brakes on expanding operations, Canadian governments are helping industry by stepping on the gas.

Several major oil and gas pipelines, which would cross Indigenous lands without consent, have federal and provincial governments support. Among them are:  

  • Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX): Originally proposed by Kinder Morgan then bought by the Canadian government in 2018, this pipeline would run from Alberta to the Vancouver region, threatening drinking water and bringing increased oil tanker traffic that threaten endangered orca whales. Read more.
  • Keystone XL: Supported by the Canadian government and cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden, this TC Energy pipeline would run from Alberta to Nebraska, connecting with another pipeline to transport oil across sensitive aquifers vital for drinking and farming water before reaching the Gulf Coast of Texas. Read more about Indigenous opposition here in Canada and the impacts south of the colonial border.
  • Line 3: Gas giant Enbridge wants to construct a tar sands pipeline from Alberta to Wisconsin, even though the company is responsible for one of the worst and most expensive inland oil spills in history. The pipeline would go through vital river waters as well as the wetlands and treaty territory of the Anishinaabe peoples. Read more about the fight against Line 3.

Many of these pipeline projects or the companies behind them are funded by private investors, big banks (like Royal Bank of Canada, CIBC and TD Bank), and even Canadian taxpayers in the case of TMX. Read more on why funding pipelines is financially risky.

How can I help stop tar sands pipelines and other expansion projects?

You can take the first step by joining our organization as well as supporting Indigenous-led struggles. Greenpeace activists are taking action in the streets, exercising our right to peaceful protest, signing petitions, meeting with our Members of Parliament and holding corporations accountable. Every day, more and more of us are standing up for climate justice and opposing industry’s attempts to expand oil and gas production. Join us in calling on Canada’s government to defuse one of the biggest carbon bombs on Earth.

This blog was updated in May 2021.

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