Tar Sands 101: A Busy Mom’s Intro to the Tar Sands

tar sands pollution

Credit: Environmental Defence Canada

What are the tar sands, anyway?

The term tar sands refers to oil that has been trapped in a sticky mixture with sand and water. While you may imagine oil à la Beverly Hillbillies, spurting out of the ground, tar sands need to be dug out and put through an energy intensive process to separate the oil from the sand and water. There are tar sands in different regions around the world, but Alberta is home to the largest known reserve on the planet.

The fact tar sands require extra steps – and extra energy – to turn it into the stuff that flows easily through a pipe or into our gas tanks is why it is especially polluting and bad for our environment and our climate.

The processes to extract oil from the tar sands leave behind significant amounts of toxic waste that is making its way into our air and water. Every day, 200 million litres of toxic liquid waste are generated in the tar sands, and each day 11 million litres of toxic waste leaks into the surrounding ecosystems. Learn more about the tar sands and water in this video:

Toxic cancer-causing air pollutants have been found in concentrations 6,000 times higher than normal in communities near the tar sands, which has been linked to elevated rates of rare and deadly cancers of in the region.

Rather than taking meaningful actions to limit pollution from the tar sands, Big Oil wants to triple tar sands production by 2030. This will mean more polluted air, more polluted water and more damage to our climate.

What do the tar sands have to do with my family?

The discussion about Canada’s energy is a discussion about our kid’s future. Do we want our kids looking back in 30, 40 or 50 years and wondering what the heck was the matter with us? Why didn’t we change course when the science was clearly telling us about the dangers of climate change?

Burning fossil fuels (like the tar sands) is filling up our atmosphere with heat trapping gasses and causing global warming. Experts say we need to keep 2/3 of all of the oil and fossil fuels that we know about in the ground if we want to avoid the worst of climate change.

We’ve already seen the horrific impacts of climate catastrophes like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Closer to home, we’ve seen the horrible floods in Calgary and Toronto, and Hurricane Sandy along the Atlantic coast.

tar sands facts

Environmental Defence

We teach our children to avoid things that aren’t safe. Continuing our addiction to polluting fossil fuels is unsafe for our climate. We need to keep the tar sands in the ground. Otherwise, we’ll be signing our children up to a future they don’t deserve.

It’s time to go on a carbon diet and the first to go will be the highest polluting of the fuels – like tar sands. We need this diet so that future generations don’t have to experience the worst of climate change.

The tar sands are already the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Canada can’t tackle climate change in a meaningful way while expanding the tar sands. That’s like trying to go on a diet while eating five chocolate cakes a day. It just doesn’t work.

And economically, relying on the tar sands doesn’t make sense. The price of oil has always been volatile, but in a world on a carbon diet it’s going to get much worse. As the world begins to take climate change seriously, many countries are cutting their demand for oil and building smarter, cleaner energy solutions. Globally, the green economy is growing. Unless Canada changes its energy priorities, we are at risk of being left behind as the renewable energy sector grows.

What can you do?

While day-to-day choices about our energy use add up, getting our governments to move away from being dead last among developed countries when it comes to climate action and clean energy will require more than individual actions. Our politicians are making decisions that will define our children’s generation and they need to know that nothing is more important to a parent than ensuring their children have the best shot at a good future.

Pick up the phone, or send an email to your Member of Parliament. Tell them you care about your kid’s future and you want to see Canada succeed in a smart, clean, modern energy future, not be dragged under by dated oil.

Across Canada, more and more voices are calling for Canada to take a cleaner energy pathway. Our movement is growing stronger. But the more voices speaking out, the better.

Visit http://environmentaldefence.ca/issues/tar-sands to learn more about our work and how you can get involved in the growing movement that is saying No to reckless tar sands expansion.

Want to learn more? Visit www.tarsandsrealitycheck.ca for quick and clear facts about the tar sands.

By Hannah McKinnon, National Program Manager of Environmental Defence


  • Cheriak says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’m a huge advocate for green energy and moving away from such an obvious obstruction to our health and welfare from the tar sands. Everything about these tar sands and the way the government has been systematically destroying our democracy and purposely trying to silence science and any opposition is quite horrifying. We need more people to understand the impacts of climate and health and environment (and politics) with the Tar Sands Project. If we were putting this much energy and money into developing new technologies we would be the world leader and leave a beautiful legacy for our children.

    • I love this article too, Cher! Frankly, I knew more about what was happening in the US than in our own country until the past year or so. We do need to get people together to understand what the implications on the Tar Sands as well as make a real commitment to green energy. Spreading the word is one way to create a shift but we definitely are going to need to do more….

  • Erin Ely says:

    What a great article, thanks for bringing forth this information. There is so much disinformation out there it’s super important to spread the word on this. I think this is a huge issue.

  • Thank you for this info. I’ll be talking more about this on my eco blog in the new year. Plus showing my daughter’s class this video at their Eco Patrol group. Cheers!

  • The Harper and Redford governments are cheerleading and facilitating the suicidal race to development of further carbon production. Even more disturbing is their vicious attack on our capacity to understand what alternatives are available and could be developed without conservative obstruction on behalf of the oil mega-corporations. Something else that should be terrifying to everyone is their concerted drive to shut down evidence based understandings of our world. Our children may very well be justified in condemning our failure to confront and disempower this tiny group that are so determined to drag our democracy back to the 17th century. Even worse is the thought expressed by thousands of climate scientists that anthropocentric climate change may very well make a decent or any existence on our planet impossible. That a small faction is willing to gamble with that possibility should indicate that it is past time to question their judgement. They currently have power but that is not self-justifying. They are just wrong and they have to go! It may not yet be too late to develop rational ways for us to be on this earth.

    • I must believe that we can be on this Earth in a sustainable way without further destroying our home. It’s going to take numbers of us to stand up and demand real changes. My question is how do we rally people to care enough to fight back?

      • Most important is education. Personally I will no longer allow mis or disinformation to pass in polite company. When someone regurgitates nonsense I take it as my responsibility to ask for the evidence to support their position. Further, since I do not have the estimated billion dollars a year to spend on climate change denial that the corporate lobby does I encourage others to use all possible means of social media to debunk their efforts.

      • Cheriak says:

        Sara, I long for the answer to that question too. How do we rally people to care enough to fight back? I agree with William that it’s about education but it’s also about getting to the heart of people and affecting them enough to take action. I’m always surprised that I seem to be one of the only of my peers who are bombarding social media with issues constantly. Out of 350 facebook friends, there are maybe 5 people who post regularly about environmental and political issues and maybe another 5 who post occasionally. It’s just not enough engagement. I wish I knew the answer. Those of us who are “tuned in” need to keep leading the way to reform and doing what we can to engage people and support the changemakers.

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