Alberta Tar Sands



Project risks:

Environmental Destruction, Social Harm


  • Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL)
  • Suncor Energy Inc
  • Cenovus Energy Inc
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation
  • Imperial Oil Ltd
  • MEG Energy Corp
  • TotalEnergies SE
  • CNOOC Ltd
  • ConocoPhillips
  • Chevron Corporation
  • Husky Energy Inc
  • Royal Dutch Shell plc
  • China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec Group)
  • Teck Resources Ltd
  • Athabasca Oil Corporation
  • BP plc
  • Serafina Energy Ltd
  • Osum Oil Sands Corp
  • Japan Petroleum Exploration Co Ltd (JAPEX)
  • China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)
  • PetroChina Company Ltd
  • Connacher Oil And Gas Ltd
  • Cona Resources Ltd
  • Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC)
  • Strathcona Resources Ltd
  • Sunshine Oilsands Ltd
  • International Petroleum Corporation (IPC)
  • Whitecap Resources Inc
  • Baytex Energy Corp

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approximate location

The Dirtiest Project on Earth

Alberta's tar sands oil extraction is one of the dirtiest projects on Earth. Most of Canada’s oil comes from tar sands. The extraction area is larger than England. If all of Alberta's tar sands oil were burned, global temperatures would rise by 0.4 °C (32.7°F). This alone would take our world beyond the critical 1.5 °C limit.

To get to the oil, Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL), Suncor Energy, Cenovus Energy, ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil and others are destroying Canada’s ancient Boreal Forest. Most of Canada’s tar sands are located underneath the trees. Tar sands are a mix of tar, clay, sands and bitumen, an unconventional type of oil. Oil companies get the bitumen out of the ground in 2 ways, either they take it from the surface or they extract it from deep under the ground. In more than half of Alberta, the bitumen lies   so deep in the ground that they must drill wells and inject steam to extract it. To get to the shallow layers, oil companies cut down the trees and blast away the fertile topsoil. In their quest for oil, more than 25 companies are draining wetlands and changing the natural course of Alberta’s rivers and streams. They leave large lakes of poisonous waste and gigantic open mine pits in thousands of square miles of destroyed landscape behind.

The companies are extracting the dirty tar sands oil in an area that is larger than England. Credit: Jiri Rezac

Impacts on Health and Environment

Before the bulldozers came, Canada’s Boreal Forest made up 25 percent of the Earth’s remaining intact forests. The Boreal Forest stretches across northern Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe and Russia. Unknown to many, it is not a uniform forest; it’s a patchwork of coniferous and hardwood forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. The huge amounts of carbon that the forest stores make it a life-support system for the planet. Boreal Forests hold almost twice as much carbon as Rainforests do.[1] Over thousands of years, the forest has stored carbon in its trees, its wetlands and deep in permafrost soil. As oil and gas companies are cutting down the ancient trees, they are releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies says: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

The companies are bulldozing the ancient Boreal Forest to get to the oil. Credit: Jiri Rezac

When Exxon, Suncor and co. mine the oil, they produce toxic waste referred to as tailings. These tailings are a slurry of water, fine sand particles, chemicals, heavy metals and other petrochemical waste. Oil companies are dumping this poisonous brew into enormous human-made lakes. The companies call them tailing ponds. Some of these so-called ponds are lakes big enough to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools. Alberta’s tar sands companies have produced more than 1.18 trillion liters of poisonous tailings. And the toxic lakes are getting bigger every day.

The toxic lakes make people ill. They are full of poisons such as lead, arsenic, benzene and mercury. The chemicals cause nervous system damage, higher rates of cancer and rare types of childhood cancer. The slurry from tailing ponds seeps continuously into Alberta’s groundwaters, lakes and rivers. Even as far as 200 km (124 mi) away from the Alberta extraction sites, cancer rates have increased by 30 percent.[2]  Until today, oil companies have not taken responsibility for the consequences of their activities.

Indigenous First Nations people traditionally used to make a living with Alberta’s fish. This has become impossible. Tar sands companies have been using so much water for oil production that water levels have become dangerously low. The few fish people can still catch are too polluted to eat. Many indigenous communities are struggling to make enough money to survive. Often people are left with no choice but to work for the industry that has destroyed the land and waters they depend on.

The oil companies are dumping their toxic waste into huge human-made lakes, or as they call them: tailing ponds. Credit: Jiri Rezac

Government Greenwashing

For decades, civil society and First Nations both in Canada and the US have criticized and challenged tar sands pipelines due to leaks and environmental damage. The Canadian government reacted to the criticism by actively promoting pipelines and tar sands as safe, reliable and responsible. Altogether, it has spent USD 30 million of tax payers’ money on pro-pipeline and tar sands advertising campaigns.

Banks: Masters of Hypocrisy

Banks are coming under increasing pressure to stop funding tar sands companies. Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, Crédit Agricole and others have said that they will no longer finance tar sands projects. However, they continue to give unspecified loans to the exact same tar sands companies. In this way, these companies can still use the money for their tar sands projects. In fact, in 2020, Standard Chartered and Crédit Agricole channeled even more money to tar sands companies than before. Supporting one of the dirtiest projects on earth in the middle of the climate crisis is a huge reputational risk for any financial institution.

“Our ancestors have lived on these lands for thousands of years and the decimation of the land, air, water, vegetation in the past 40 years of tar sands mining is the worst any industrialized country has seen ever. Worst case for our people living downstream is the multitude of rare cancers we are living and dying with while the governments continue to give approvals for further development.” 

George J. Poitras, Former Chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation[3]


Groups working on Alberta Tar Sands: Above Ground, Rainforest Action Network, Climate Action Network, RAVEN Trust, Greenpeace, Environmental Defence, Indigenous Environmental Network, International Treaty Organization, Sierra Club, Concerned Scientists, David Suzuki Foundation, The Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Works, Amnesty International, Canadian Wilderness Committee, Ducks Unlimited, BankTrack, Oil Change International, Stop Line 3, Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, 350org

Sources: Environmental and Social Policy