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Tar Sands' Soiled Oil

Syncrude oil sands mining operations.
Photo © David Dodge / The Pembina Institute

Energy producers are spending $15 billion a year to triple oil production from the bitumen-saturated tar sands of northern Alberta, Canada, which are the largest source of oil imports to the U.S. pipeline companies. These companies are spending $31 billion to ship oil from Alberta to U.S. refiners in the Heartland, Great Lakes and Gulf coast. Refiners are spending more than $20 billion to expand refineries to process tar sands oil into transportation fuels.

Alberta's tar sands are at the leading edge of a new era of hydrocarbon development in North America and the world. Instead of drilling into "conventional" underground pools of oil and natural gas, developers are probing "unconventional" reserves. They are mining and processing tar sands and oil shales, and essentially steaming out the oil, or splintering deep geologic layers of shale to liberate natural gas.

Oil companies and the State Department assert that increasing the supply of Canada's tar sands is in America's strategic and economic interest. Oil from tar sands replaces diminishing supplies from conventional oil reserves, and provides petroleum imports from America's most important trading partner. But critics assert that developing tar sands and other unconventional reserves will require more water, produce more climate-changing emissions and ruin more land as well as natural habitat than the conventional oil reserves they're replacing. In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened in the permitting of a proposed $7 billion-tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf coast. It is the first time a federal agency has taken action to rigorously assess the effects of pipeline construction and tar sands development on water, the climate, water, land and communities.

Feature Stories

South of the Border—Second Environmental Review of Tar Sands Pipeline Leaves Many Groups Unsatisfied

Residents and lawmakers in Nebraska mull their options for protecting key groundwater sources.

Scene of Midwest’s Worst Oil Spill – Sleepless Nights and Black Goo

Students examine communities affected by Enbridge rupture on Kalamzoo River.

A Midwest Pipeline Rupture Raises Questions About Tar Sands Risk

Enbridge is working overtime to clean up the spill, placate the community, and get oil flowing again.

EPA and State Department Square Off On Tar Sands Pipeline

Water use and greenhouse gas emissions are major concerns with oil interests plays.

Tar Sands Oil Production, An Industrial Bonanza, Poses Major Water Use Challenges

Ensuring Americans enjoy a lifestyle built on choice and mobility.

Pipeline Ties Detroit Refinery to “Dirtiest Source of Fossil Fuels”

State department says oil is needed; Congress leader joins activists in raising concerns.

WaterViews | Canada

Water is regarded as a serious issue by Canadians, particularly water pollution and the lack of safe drinking water.

Tar Sand Stories

Canada Oil Rush May Lead to Water Shortage

In the last 12 years, the most powerful oil companies have rushed to plunk down $150 billion in the oil sands.


Infographic: A Closer Look at Tar Sands Oil

185 gallons of water + two tons of soil + 700-1200 cubic feet of natural gas
= one barrel of crude oil.

Photo Slideshow: Tar Sands Oil Refinery Burdens a Detroit Community

Residents face the environmental and health consequences of a Marathon refinery expansion.

Infographic: Tripling Tar Sands Oil Imports, Pipeline and Refinery Map from Canada to U.S.

The industry is spending billions of dollars to develop more U.S. pipelines.



  • Center For American Progress What Happens in Canada Doesn’t Stay In Canada: Tar Sands Debate Has Implications for the United States (April 12, 2010)
  • Climate and Capitalism The Facts About The Alberta Tar Sands (March 7, 2009)
  • CorpWatch The Enbridge Oil Sands Gamble (December 14, 2009)
  • Desmog Blog Top Ten Facts About The Alberta Tar Sands
  • Home Heating Oil Unconventional Oil Reserves in and Around the U.S. (August 6, 2009)
  • Solve Climate Athabasca South? Activity Hints at Tar Sands Development in Utah (March 30, 2010)
  • The New York Times Unconventional Oil on the March (October 15, 2008)
  • The New Yorker Unconventional Crude: Canada’s Synthetic-fuels Boom (November 12, 2007)
  • The Oil Drum Unconventional Oil: Tar Sands and Shale Oil (April 15, 2008)



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