Oil Campaigns

Tar Sands Oil

What is Tar Sands Oil?tar-sands-hands-40KB.jpg

tar-sands-map-123KB.pngTar sands oil is thick black clay/sand/bitumen sludge and solid as a hockey puck at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.[1] Tar sands contain eleven times more sulfur, and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil. 

Tar Sand deposits are found in many countries, such as  Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Utah, and Canada. The largest deposits are in Alberta, Canada, in an area about the size of the state of Florida. (Alberta tar sands map graphic credit: Norman Einstein)

The Canadian tar sands fields are the largest construction project on earth, destroying pristine northern Canadian forests and peat bogs that act as carbon absorbers.  The Fort McMurray, Alberta area looks and smells like an ecological sacrifice area. 

Why is it so thick?

Tar sands bitumen is thick because it contains more carbon than regular oil. This carbon results in 24% more carbon dioxide in a barrel of tar sands crude (bitumen) than in a barrel of light crude.[2]

What is petcoke?

When tar sands bitumen is refined, the last refinery end product is a coal like product laced with toxic chemicals, called petcoke. Petcoke is sold as a coal substitute, and often sold to overseas markets. This climate impact is not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands oil. Piles of dusty petcoke have been collecting on the south side of Chicago and in Detroit, where refineries have recently converted to tar sands oil. Oil refineries are becoming coal factories at a time when we are reducing our dependence on coal, due to its impacts on human health and climate change.

Tar Sands Oil Extraction is Highly Polluting

This is what it takes to get ONE BARREL of tar sands oil:

  • Open Pit Mining: Four (4) tons of earth are hauled to a processing plant and 2 to 4 gallons of fresh, drinkable water are heated and used to extract the oil from the clay. This leaves behind a massively degraded environment and highly polluted water that current technologies cannot clean.
  • Drilling “in-situ” (in place): Steam, some mixed with toxic chemicals, is pumped, under high pressure, into the ground to melt the thick bitumen so it can be pumped out days later. The ground water left behind is now highly polluted.

These extraction techniques use extreme amounts of diesel fuel, natural gas, electricity, contributing more to climate change than regular oil. That’s why NASA’s Jim Hansen has called the full extraction of the Canadian tar sands “game over” for the climate.

People living near the extraction sites are bearing a heavy health burden, suffering elevated levels of cancers. This is a justice issue[link to climate justice] for those of us who benefit from the oil.

That’s why it’s so important that we TAKE ACTION TODAY to keep tar sands oil in the ground.


[1] CAPP.ca 2014 What are oil sands? Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.[online] Available at: http://www.capp.ca/canadaindustry//oilSands/Energy-Economy/Pages/what-are-oilsands.aspx

[2] “Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands”, Oil Change International, Jan 2013, Executive Summary pg, found at: http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2013/01/OCI.Petcoke.FINALSCREEN.pdf (Accessed June 2014)