Skip navigation.
Pulling oil from the tar sands of Alberta is creating huge 
environmental problems.

Pulling oil from the tar sands of Alberta is creating huge environmental problems.

Enlarge Image

Edmonton, Canada — Greenpeace has taken a dramatic step to expand its climate and energy campaign by opening an office in Edmonton to oppose tar sands in Alberta.

The arrival of Greenpeace in Alberta has already sparked widespread attention in the province. Greenpeace will hire at least one full time tar sands campaigner for the coming year. To kick things off, we are hitting the ground running with two talented and dedicated staffers on four-month contracts beginning in July. We welcome Mike Hudema and Geeta Sehgal to the Greenpeace team.

Mike is from Alberta, but currently on staff at San Francisco’s Global Exchange office, and will be returning to them after his sojourn with Greenpeace. Geeta has just graduated from law school at the University of Alberta, and has been active with a number of environmental and social change organizations.

“Tar sands” refers to a mixture of bitumen, sand and clay. Bitumen is a very heavy crude oil that does not flow on its own, and must be mined on the surface, or in below-ground (in situ) mines that involve heating the sand/oil mixture to make it flow. The tar sands are spread across 77,000 sq. km. in northern Alberta in four deposits: Peace River in the northwest, Athabasca and Wabasca in the northeast, and Cold Lake to the east. It has been estimated that up to 319 billion barrels of bitumen could be recovered from these deposits, or 175 billion barrels at current prices. This far exceeds Canada’s conventional oil reserves (4.8 billion barrels), and places Canada second only to Saudi Arabia (260 billion barrels) in world reserves.

    It takes about four tonnes of tar sands to produce one barrel of synthetic oil, so the environmental impacts are understandably huge:
•    Tar sands produce five times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, because they are energy-intensive, requiring huge amounts of natural gas to separate and process the bitumen.
•    It takes four barrels of surface and ground water to produce one barrel of synthetic crude from tar sands. Water is being taken in huge quantities from the Athabasca River. The contaminated, toxic water from processing is dumped in giant holding lagoons.
•    Air pollutants from tar sands processing include not just greenhouse gases, but large emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, Volatile Organic Compounds and particulates, causing smog, acid rain, and variety of human health problems.
•    The tar sands cover a minimum of 4.3 million hectares, and are entirely within Canada’s boreal forest. Reclamation efforts for forests and wetlands will not be able to restore the forest to its original ecosystem state.

Tar sands are expected to be a large and increasing part of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Tar sands development is in a gold-rush phase, with production doubling in the last decade to one million barrels per day (half of Canada’s total production).

The global warming measures proposed by the Harper government involve intensity-based targets, which would only reduce emissions as a percentage of economic activity, while allowing the absolute level of emissions to increase. This is a particular problem for the tar sands, where production is expected to expand three to five-fold by 2015.