What are the Tar Sands?

Tar sands are heavy oil, combined with clay, sand, and water that cannot be pumped out of the ground like conventional oil. Instead it is extracted using open pit mines or heated and pumped out using in situ technology.

Mining – With surface mining, the area is first cleared of trees, then the muskeg is drained of water and removed and then the underlying clay, silt and gravel is removed to expose the tar sands deposit.. Large shovels excavate the tar sands and load it in giant trucks that transport it to an extraction plant where heat and water separate the bitumen from the sand.

In situ – In situ extraction is performed by drilling several wells into the deposit, using steam to heat and separate the bitumen, and then pumping the bitumen to the surface. Most in situ tar sands deposits are 350 to 600 metres below the surface. The two main types of in situ technology are steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and cyclic steam stimulation (CSS).


Keystone XL - TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL would nearly double U.S. imports of tar sands tar locking it into a dependence on hard-to-extract oil and generating a massive expansion of the destructive tar sands oil operations in Canada.  The proposed pipeline would cross 6 U.S. states and 2,736 kilometres or 1,700 miles threatens to contaminate freshwater supplies in America's agricultural heartland and increase refinery emissions in already-polluted communities of the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Building the pipeline would be the same as building 7 new coal-fired power plants and running them continuously for 50 years. Following widespread opposition to the pipeline in the U.S., the Obama administration announced it would conduct another environmental review of the pipeline expected to be completed in 2013.

Enbridge Northern Gateway - The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines would carry 525,000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta tar sands to the port of Kitimat on the North Coast of British Columbia. Oil tankers 8 times the size of the Exxon Valdez would carry oil to markets in China and the US. This pipeline and the super tankers would put the salmon streams, forests, whales, bears, coastal ecosystem, and more at risk from oil spills. This pipeline is opposed by over 100 First Nations, many of whom have used ancestral laws to ban oil tanker and tar sands pipelines from their traditional territories.  Over 4000 people have signed up to speak at the pubic hearings in 2012 and 80% of British Columbians would like to see a permanent ban on oil tankers. 

Kinder Morgan - Kinder Morgan already has the Trans Mountain pipeline that carries 350,000 barrels per day from the tar sands to Vancouver where it is shipped to US markets. Kinder Morgan is now applying to expand the pipeline to 700,000 barrels per day and to increase oil tankers from 2 to 10 per week. Kinder Morgan is proposing to dredge the waters approaching the terminal in Vancouver to allow larger Suezmax tankers access to the terminal. These tankers can carry one million barrels of crude oil — 4 times as much spilled from the Exxon Valdez — and would travel B.C.’s south coast 228 times a year.

Enbridge Trailbreaker - Enbridge wants to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline, Line 9, to carry more tar sands oil into Ontario. This is part of a larger project, originally called Trailbreaker, which would bring tar sands oil into Quebec for the first time. From there, the oil would travel to Portland, Maine and then to the Gulf Coast refineries via oil supertankers.