Tar sands is a heavy mixture of sand, clay, water and oil that requires mining and complex upgrading and processing in order to produce synthetic crude oil. Although found in a number of countries globally, including Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Nigeria, Madagascar and China, the exploitation of tar sands is most advanced in Alberta, Canada. The Athabasca tar sands cover an area the size of England (140,000 km²) mostly covered by Alberta’s pristine boreal forest which is being cleared to make way for mining projects. Strip mining for tar sands has created toxic tailings ponds which are large enough as to be visible from space. Current production in Canada stands at 1.5 million barrels per day (mb/d), and is projected to increase to 5mb/d by 2030 under a “Business As Usual” scenario. Thousands of environmental laws in Canada have been repealed in 2012 to facilitate these ambitious expansion plans.
Most synthetic crude oil recovered from the tar sands is burnt in the US but plans are afoot to expand into new global markets. Enbridge, TransCanada and Kinder Morgan are putting in place the infrastructure to build pipelines to the East and West coasts of Canada. Even the Keystone XL pipeline, is planned to carry tar sands oil to Port Arthur in Texas, where it can then be shipped to overseas markets. Tar sands extraction involves the ongoing “slow industrial genocide” of First Nations communities. Millions of litres of toxic tailings pond fluids – a cocktail of napthenic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – leech into the Athabasca River on a daily basis, flowing downstream to communities such as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. In these communities, there are elevated cases of extremely rare cancers, consistent with exposure to heavy metals and other toxins.