Top 10 Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands

tar sands facts

(Photo credit: Kris Krug on Flickr)

This tar sands facts sheet was updated: Feb, 2014

FACT #1: The Alberta oil sands have a huge carbon footprint. To illustrate, a Honda Accord burning tar sands gasoline has the same climate impact as a Chevy Suburban using conventional gasoline.1

FACT #2: The Alberta oil sands produce lakes of toxic sludge. A 2013 report concluded that an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailings ponds could have catastrophic impact in the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River Basin due to the size of these lakes and their proximity to the Athabasca River. Also, according to documents from the Canadian government, the tailings ponds are leaking into and contaminating Alberta groundwater.

FACT #3: In April 2008, a flock of migrating ducks landed on a tar sands toxic lake and died.

The owner of the toxic tailings lake, oil sands company Syncrude, was fined $3 million in 2010 for the duck deaths. According to the CBC, “Syncrude lawyer Jack Marshall told the court that the company apologizes for the incident and recognizes it must do much better when it comes to protecting wildlife.”

FACT #4: The Alberta oil sands are holding Canada back on climate change action. Canada would be on track to reduce climate pollution over the next decade if not for the planned expansion of the tar sands industry. Instead Canadian emissions are predicted to increase.4

FACT #5: The toxic tailing lakes are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The toxic lakes in Northern Alberta span 176 square kilometers and can be seen from space.

FACT #6: Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil. In 2004, oil sands production surpassed one million barrels per day; by 2015, oil sands production is expected to more than double to about 2.2 million barrels per day. 

FACT #7: The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas in Canada. By 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada.

FACT #8: Fully exploiting the oil sands could release more climate pollution than the USA and China combined have released in all their history. It could surpass all the oil ever burned by humanity.8

FACT #9: Emissions from the Alberta oil sands increased 267 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to Environment Canada, although per-barrel emissions have gone down a reported 26 percent. The overall increase of Canada’s expanding tar sands extraction, however, has the nation’s total emissions set to increase steadily over the next several decades.

FACT #10: Climate pollution from producing oil sands oil is projected to hit 104 Mt CO2 by 2020. That is twice the current emissions from Norway or Bangladesh — and exceeds the combined emissions from 85 nations.10


1. DETAILS: The average passenger vehicle in the USA got 21.6 miles per US Gallon in 2010 and lasted for 212,000 miles 2. This requires burning 9,722 gallons of gasoline per vehicle whichwill produce 87 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2). Gasoline produces 8.92 kgCO2/USGallon 3. Using tar sands gasoline increases wells-to-wheels emissions by 22% leading to an extra 19 tCO2 for an average vehicle. 

2. DETAILS: Canada produces ~70 Mt of coal each year. Burning that releases around 140 MtCO2. Canada produced 1.6 million barrels of tar sands per day in 2011, or 585 million barrels a year. Each barrel of bitumen produces 0.521 tCO2 when burned. That yields around 300MtCO2 – double the emissions from burning all Canadian-mined coal. Tar sands production is expected to more than double by 20209 yielding over 650MtCO2 when burned.

4. DETAILS: Environment Canada predicts that between 2010 and 2020, climate pollution from all of Canada except the tar sands is set to decline between by 28 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2). However climate pollution from the planned expansion of tar sands is predicted to increase by 56 MtCO2 over that same period. This will wipe out the climate progress from the rest of Canada and force the nation to increase, rather than decrease, climate pollution for at least another decade. If regulations were put in place that capped the amount of climate pollution from the tar sands then Canada as a nation would be on track to reduce climate emissions. Pembina report: “…it is clear that oilsands expansion and the corresponding rise in emissions from this sector represent a serious barrier to Canada playing a constructive role in the global fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

8. DETAILS: If all the carbon in the tar sands deposit (aka “oil in place”) were extracted and burned it would release between 1,0001 and 1,2002 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). However much of the carbon is unlikely to be economically viable to extract. NASA climatologist James Hansen said a “conservative” estimate would be that around half of carbon deposits are eventually extracted, leading him to estimate around 160 billion tonnes of carbon which would release 587 GtCO2 when used. The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) currently estimates just 17% would be ultimately recoverable although they say they haven't completely surveyed the resource. This lower estimate would result in wells-to-wheels emissions of 180 GtCO2. An average recovery figure for oil industry currently is listed at around 35%. This would result in wells-to-wheels emissions of 361 GtCO2. The World Resources Institute's Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAITlists cumulative CO2 emissions from 1850-2008 by nation in billions of tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) including: USA = 345; EU = 314; China = 113; Germany =82; UK = 69; Japan = 47; France = 33; India = 30 and Canada = 26. Either USA+China or EU+China total less than Hansen's 50% estimate. The US Department of Energy estimates global coal, oil and natural gas burning from 1752 through 2008: Coal: 616 GtCO2; Oil: 450 GtCO2; Gas: 165 GtCO2.7

10. DETAILSEnvironment Canada expects production emissions to hit 104 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) by 2020 under current expansion plans US EIA lists Norway emissions at 51MtCO2; Bangladesh emissions at 50 MtCO2; and 85 nations with combined emissions of 103 MtCO28.


Resources and more information on the Alberta Oil Sands:

1. Check out the Pembina Institute's Oil Sands Watch for an in-depth look at the Alberta Oil Sands.

2. Download Environmental Defence’s report (pdf) highlighting the environmental and health consequences of the Tar Sands: Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth

3. CBC: Hundreds of ducks trapped on toxic Alberta oilsands pond

4. Boreal Songbird Initiative's Alberta Tar Sands Fact Sheet

5. Greenpeace Tar Sands Campaign

6. Stop the Tar Sands

7. Traveling Alberta (Tar Sands Vacation site)