Skip to main content

Tar Sands Create Pipeline To The Past

Canada's vast boreal forest (named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind) covers more than a third of the country's total landmass and is a larger ecosystem than the Amazon. In addition to providing habitat for a diverse range of species including moose, lynx, grizzly bears and over 3 billion birds, the peat bogs and wetlands of the boreal forest are among the planet's most effective carbon sinks.

But a persistent thirst for dirty fuels threatens to irrevocably harm the boreal forest and chain us further to an unsustainable energy future.

Canada supplies more crude oil to the United States than any other country (even Saudi Arabia), due mainly to the export of synthetic crude oil from large reserves in the Canadian boreal called the tar sands.

But the tar sands, located mainly in northern Alberta, aren't your average oil reserves. They are a mixture of sand, clay and a thick type of crude oil called bitumen. Extracting bitumen from the tar sands requires trucks that are five stories high and armed with large steel teeth that rake the ground raw.

When reserves are too deep to strip mine, steam is used to melt the bitumen, which is then pumped to the surface. Tar sands bitumen is so thick that it has to be heated and diluted with toxic chemicals in order to be transported by pipeline to refineries where it can be turned into fuels.

The destruction caused by mining tar sands is staggering. In addition to cutting down large sections of the forest, production of just one barrel of oil from the tar sands moves four tons of earth, consumes five barrels of water, and releases on average about three times as much global warming pollution as conventional oil extraction. Waste water from this process is dumped in toxic tailings ponds, which are deadly to migrating birds and can contaminate streams and groundwater across a large area.

And the impact isn't isolated to the forest. Refining the synthetic crude oil produced from tar sands deposits, which is far dirtier than conventional crude oil, produces more air pollutants and emits more global warming pollution than refining conventional crude.

Thousands of miles of new pipelines have been proposed to increase the export of dirty oil from Alberta's tar sands to U.S. oil refineries, many of which must reconfigure their facilities to process tar sands crude. Earthjustice is challenging the construction of two pipelines that will deliver more than 1 million barrels of dirty tar sands oil per day to the U.S. These pipelines are a threat to the communities that live in their paths and were conceived without an adequate assessment of the impacts they will have on the global climate.

This massive investment in new oil infrastructure comes at a time when the country (and the world) has a tremendous opportunity to invest in renewable, low-carbon fuels and move away from our dirty energy past. We need to seize that opportunity. Building expensive new facilities to import and burn the dirtiest crude oil on earth is exactly the wrong investment, and we'll continue to work with our allies to help ensure we get it right.

Tags:  Oil, Public Lands