Oil Change International

Exposing the true costs of fossil fuels

Tar Sands

We campaign against the rapidly expanding Canadian tar sands industry, a carbon source that is out of control. Far from bringing America energy security, as its proponents claim, tar sands undermines action on climate change and keeps America hooked on dirty oil.

Tar sands (also known as oil sands) is a low quality form of oil that consists of bitumen mixed with sand, clay and water. Vast quantities of the substance are found in Alberta, Canada and in eastern Venezuela. Other deposits are known to exist in Utah, parts of Russia, Congo (Brazzaville), Madagascar and elsewhere, but it is currently only commercially produced in Canada and Venezuela.

Tar sands is extreme oil in every way. Its extraction is particularly energy and water-intensive, polluting, and destructive. It is either strip mined or produced by injecting high pressure steam into the ground to melt the bitumen and get it to flow to the surface. To process it into usable fuel requires complex upgrading and refining that is also highly energy intensive and polluting.

Tar sands oil is more dangerous to transport because it is more corrosive to pipelines. When something goes wrong, as it inevitably does, it is very difficult to clean up a tar sands spill. The Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010 cost more per barrel to clean up than any spill in U.S. history. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars and two years of clean up operations, oil remains in some parts of the affected area.

Tar sands oil is more polluting to produce, transport and refine than conventional oil because it contains more carbon and more toxic substances, such as heavy metals and sulfur. No matter which methods are developed to extract and process it, these pollutants are released into the environment one way or another once the resource is extracted. Developing tar sands means increasing the already high pollution burden associated with oil production.

Further, tar sands is a vast resource – 314 billion barrels of technically recoverable bitumen lie below Alberta, Canada alone. The volume of tar sands oil, combined with the energy intensive extraction techniques, means that producing and burning all of this tar sands oil would mean assured climate catastrophe.

Challenges
The immense power of the oil industry in North America and the trillions of dollars in profits at stake provide huge momentum to tar sands production. The industry is churning out multiple reasons why tar sands is a viable – and profitable – oil resource.

The tar sands industry claims that it is vital to U.S. energy security and that it will bring jobs and economic benefits. While oil from Canada may seem more appealing than oil from other parts of the world, the climate consequences alone of producing and burning all the tar sands bitumen mean that it is simply not a viable option, and will not make the United States any more ‘secure.’ Additionally,  the jobs and economic benefits that the industry claims for itself are often exaggerated.

There is a choice – we don’t need tar sands oil. One of the great challenges in fighting against tar sands is convincing Americans that we don’t need this dirty and dangerous oil.

Solutions

Debunking tar sands myths. Relying on tar sands oil does not make us more secure or better off – our climate system simply cannot absorb all the carbon in the tar sands. We need to improve transparency and counter industry misinformation about the tar sands, as with much of the oil industry. Our research and analysis shines a spotlight on the myths surrounding tar sands oil, with a focus on climate change and achieving true energy security.

Picking key battles and supporting community resistance. Proposed pipeline projects, which would bring tar sands oil to markets that so far have not had access to the low quality crude, provide important battlegrounds around tar sands. Projects such as Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway have highlighted the risks of tar sands crude contaminating communities along their proposed routes. Supporting communities and activists in halting these pipelines is an important step in fighting back against the tar sands industry.

Resources
Below are reports we have published debunking tar sands myths.

  • Report: Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar SandsOil Change International. January 2013. Existing analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a byproduct of the process that is a major source of climate change causing carbon emissions: petroleum coke – known as petcoke. Petcoke is the coal hiding in North America’s tar sands oil boom.
  • Report: Irrational Exemption: Tar sands pipeline subsidies and why they must end. Oil Change International, Earth Track and Natural Resources Defense Council, May 2012.  Tar sands crude oil is exempt from paying into America’s Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This is worth over $375 million to the tar sands industry between 2010 and 2017. The exemption exists despite tar sands pipelines spilling more often than pipelines carrying conventional oil and these spills being more difficult and expensive to clean up. The tar sands exemption is irrational and poses a risk to public health.
  • Report: Keystone XL: Undermining Energy Security and Sending Tar Sands Overseas. Oil Change International and Natural Resources Defense Council, January 2012. The Keystone XL pipeline has been presented as a boon to U.S. energy security by its proponents. It is no such thing.  This report details how Keystone XL would not enhance U.S. energy security as it would simply feed a growing export market on the Gulf Coast. It explains that genuine energy security can be achieved by maximizing efficiency not maximizing Big Oil’s profits.
  • Fact Sheet: Keystone XL Does Not Enhance U.S. Energy Security, September 2011. Keystone XL is a proposed 1,700 mile crude oil pipeline that is designed to bring tar sands derived crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas. Its proponents claim that Keystone XL and the Canadian crude oil it will deliver will enhance U.S. energy security. This fact sheet explains why this claim is false.
  • Report: Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed. Oil Change International, September, 2011. The new realities of the global oil market and the companies who will profit from the pipeline reveals that the Keystone XL pipeline will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but rather transport Canadian oil to American refineries for export to overseas markets.