Canada's Tar Sands: A Growing Climate Change Disaster

The BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill has focused the public on the toxic nature of oil in a way that nothing has for years. But some of the most environmentally destructive oil extraction projects in the world are moving forward with much less publicity or public scrutiny than the spill in the Gulf—at least so far. Perhaps if one good thing comes out of the Gulf oil spill, it will be that it inspires the public to look more closely at the environmental and climate change impacts of oil projects everywhere—including one of the fastest-growing sources of fossil fuel imports in the United States, the Canadian tar sands.

Located mainly in the Canadian province of Alberta, the tar sands represent the world’s second largest oil reserves, second only to those in Saudi Arabia. In contrast to more easily accessible oil deposits however, large-scale exploitation of the tar sands has only begun in the last several years. Spurred by higher global oil prices and the conviction that they can make money off of opening vast new areas for exploration, companies from BP to ExxonMobil have invested heavily in the tar sands, the extraction of which has become one of the fastest-growing causes of climate change in the world.

As the name suggests, oil from the tar sands must be separated from vast quantities of sand and rubble before it being processed into a substance capable of powering a car. This expensive and energy-intensive procedure ensured the tar sands would stay untapped for a long time; the oil simply didn’t seem profitable to extract. Now that higher oil prices have changed that equation however, development of the tar sands is proceeding rapidly, with the blessing of the Canadian government. And while it’s a bonanza for oil companies, the tar sands spell disaster for the climate.
The huge amount of energy used to extract tar sands oil means that gallon-for-gallon it contributes three times more to climate change than conventional oil. A network of pipelines designed to transfer tar sands oil to markets in the United States also threatens the ability of the US to address the causes of climate change. Other impacts of tar sands development are more visible, and just as disastrous for the local environment. Tar sands extraction has become a major source of deforestation in Canada, threatening to engulf a largely forested region around the size of Florida. Extraction projects are contaminating local water supplies with dangerous chemicals like arsenic. Even if the climate change impacts could be erased, the tar sand would still qualify as one of the most environmentally destructive projects on the planet.

Fortunately for the climate and for Canada’s forests, growing numbers of people and businesses are responding to this threat. Environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have launched campaigns against the tar sands, pressuring the US and Canadian governments as well as corporations investing in tar sands oil. The Sierra Club is asking the US Department of State to deny permits for cross-border tar sands oil pipelines. Companies like Whole Foods Market and Bed Bath & Beyond have pledged not to use fuel that comes from the tar sands. And LUSH Cosmetics has partnered with the Rainforest Action Network to launch an education campaign that will spread the word about tar sands impacts.

Oil companies seem to be getting nervous about the bad publicity. This month the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers responded to the LUSH/RAN campaign with a press release attempting to smooth the tar sands’ image, and challenged RAN to an in-person debate on the environmental impacts of the tar sands. The debate challenge may have been a bluff though; when organizers for the Rainforest Action Network attempted to follow up, they received no response.

As campaigns against the tar sands continue to build, it seems certain the images of companies involved will be tarnished further. And with the public now focused on the BP Gulf spill, US residents may be less likely to respond receptively to new projects that would increase our country’s dependence on a new source of dirty oil. It’s time for companies investing in the tar sands to wake up, and shut down one of the largest industrial causes of climate change on the planet.

Photo Credit: Flickr