If you could defuse one of the world’s biggest carbon bombs, wouldn’t you?
Each day, our window for saving the climate — and the billions of lives that depend on it — gets a little bit shorter. While people all around the world are taking action, oil companies are trying to light the fuse to 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. The tar sands cover an area larger than England. 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, effecting 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.
The tar sands are one of the biggest industrial projects on the planet, and they might be Canada’s most embarrassing secret.
Throughout the years, the tar sands have encroached on Indigenous 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.
The type of oil they contain is extremely heavy and difficult to extract (it’s called “bitumen”). 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. The tar sands industry already has greenhouse gas emissions greater than New Zealand and Kenya combined.
The world can’t afford to expand the Alberta tar sands, not if we want to preserve this planet for future generations. Even current generations are already being impacted by climate change’s effects on sea level rise, drinking water, disease and extreme weather events.
In 2017, Indigenous leaders from the Pacific Islands came face-to-face with the tar sands, a culprit in climate change, which is driving rising sea levels, which in turn are having a devastating impact on their homes and families right now.
New tar sands projects and the global wave of resistance against them
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, Canada’s government is stepping on the gas.
It plans to build three new pipelines to carry tar sands oil across North America and even to help export this dirty oil abroad. See the map below and read our blog here to understand how these pipelines will criss-cross North America, threatening land, water and communities.
Credit: Adapted from Mazaska Talks
Today, one of the most urgent tar sands fights is the one against the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline, which the Canadian government decided to purchase from Texas oil giant Kinder Morgan in 2018. The pipeline would cross Indigenous land without consent and endanger rivers, streams and drinking water on its way from the tar sands to the ionic Pacific Coast near Vancouver, Canada. The increased oil tanker traffic it would bring to the coast could push a population of endangered orca whales to extinction
Another urgent struggle taking shape is against the Frontier Mine, proposed by Vancouver company Teck Resources. If built, the Teck mine would be one of the largest-ever tar sands mines and could lock in hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon pollution until 2067 … even though Canada’s government has promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Many Indigenous communities oppose project, given the ecological damage it could wreak on old-growth boreal forest and endangered wildlife — which would infringe on several Indigenous rights.
That’s why Greenpeace supporters and people all over the world are rising up in an unstoppable wave of resistance to say NO to tar sands expansion and YES to a clean energy transition and respect for the rights of Indigenous communities. This movement is led by many Indigenous communities who have long been standing up against tar sands expansion.
Every day, more people are standing up against the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline, Teck and other projects to expand the tar sands. Together, we can speed up the transition from fossil fuels (like oil, gas and coal) to clean energy. Read more about Greenpeace global work to end the oil age and win climate justice in this blog.
Will you join us in calling on Canada’s government to defuse one of the biggest carbon bombs on Earth?
This blog was updated in January 2020.