10 Environmental Impacts of Tar Sands

Tar sands serve a great benefit to nations around the world, with Canada as a clear example. However, it has been identified as having an impact on the environment. In this article, we are going to discuss the environmental impacts of tar sands.

Tar sands pump out more than 3 million barrels of oil per day, helping make Canada the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the top exporter of crude to the United States. But the companies’ energy-hungry extraction has also made the oil and gas sector Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Tar sands oil is the dirtiest and most climate-destructive form of oil in the world. Tar sands (also known as oil sands) are a mixture of mostly sand, clay, water, and a thick, molasses-like substance called bitumen.

It is the largest of three oil sand deposits in Alberta, Canada, and it’s also one of the largest natural bitumen deposits in the world. Oil sands are potentially more dangerous to the environment and human health than crude oil. There is ample evidence that pipeline spills, leaks, and ruptures releasing diluted bitumen can have serious implications for the surrounding land and water.

When it spills, it is almost impossible to clean up. For a few years, there was a proposal to bring tar sands oil through an existing 63-year-old pipeline in Maine.  Extracting and converting tar sands into usable fuel is a hugely expensive energy- and water-intensive endeavor that involves strip mining giant swaths of land and creating loads of toxic waste and air and water pollution.  

At every turn, the tar sands invasion would put people and the environment in harm’s way. Hence, in this article, we’re going to focus on the impacts of tar sands on the environment.

Environmental Impacts of Tar Sands

11 Environmental Impacts of Tar Sands

Discussed below are the impacts of tar sands on the environment.

  • Deforestation
  • Impact on Health
  • Toxic Waste and Wastewater
  • Air Pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Fire Outbreak
  • Ecological Impacts
  • Impacts on Wildlife
  • Global Warming
  • Impact on Land Use
  • Water Consumption

1. Deforestation

In northern Canada, mining operations are digging up and flattening forests to access the tar sands and oil below. They’re already leveling trees and destroying wetlands at alarming rates, putting millions of migratory birds, caribou, bears, wolves, and endangered species like the whooping crane at risk.

Boreal wetland ecosystems also trap massive amounts of carbon so the more the forest is developed, the more climate-wrecking gas is released into the atmosphere. For instance, the digging up of tar sands has wreaked havoc on Alberta’s boreal forest.

2. Impact on Health

From a health perspective, there is growing evidence to show that exposure to diluted bitumen in the short term can cause mild to serious adverse events.

The potential long-term adverse health effects are not clear. Canada, through the mid-section of the United States, increases the urgency to better understand the potential harms of exposure to this product.

3. Toxic Waste and Wastewater

Tar-sand oil refineries produce dangerous petcoke (petroleum coke) waste. Which is another hazardous byproduct of tar sands production. This petcoke is a dusty black residue that’s left over from the refining process.

Tar sands produce a lot of it so much that some refineries have started sending the toxic dust to residential areas close to the industries. A boost in tar sands development will mean more petcoke piles coming to more homes.

Also, tar sands development produces huge amounts of toxic wastewater. As much as mining companies don’t send the toxic, sludgy wastewater left over from tar sands production back into the river, at least not directly,

Instead, they store three million gallons’ worth every day in vast, open pools. But these tailing ponds, as they’re called, are leaking into rivers like the Athabasca, harming wildlife and increasing cancer rates in humans.

4. Air Pollution

Burning tar sands oil creates more pollution than regular crude. Because of its sludgy composition, mining and refining tar sands oil demands an enormous amount of energy.

Tar sands generate 17 percent more carbon emissions than conventional oil. Ramping up dirty tar sands oil production means a giant step back in the fight against climate change, and that’s the last thing we need.

5. Water Pollution

Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet and is always a threat to regions within. The extraction process of tar sands from huge open-pit mines is 20% more carbon-intensive than conventional crude oil.

Also, the pipeline of tar sands in some regions, such as Maine’s most pristine watersheds, has put the lakes, rivers, and coastal waters at risk and threatened communities and drinking water from Sebago Lake along its path.

Furthermore, exporting tar sands will put rivers and coastlines at risk of spills. Once the millions of barrels of tar sands oil reach the end of these pipelines, an armada of supertankers and barges will be waiting to haul them away threatening marine habitats and beaches and crowding iconic waterways like the Hudson River and the Great Lakes, posing a much greater chance of a catastrophic spill.

And worse, because tar sands crude contains a unique brew of chemicals, spills in oceans, lakes, or rivers can’t be cleaned up with conventional technology.

6. Fire Outbreak

Rail cars carrying tar sands will pass through densely populated areas. Transporting tar sands and oil by rail has already proven itself to be a risky business. “Bomb trains” keep jumping the tracks, setting towns ablaze, and contaminating water supplies. And the problem will only get worse with the development of expanded tar sands.

7. Impacts on Wildlife

Tar sands oil is causing massive environmental impacts across a widening expanse of western Canada. The sprawling tar sands operations in Alberta are one of the most environmentally destructive energy projects in the world, destroying boreal forests that provide crucial habitat for endangered woodland caribou and breeding grounds for millions of birds.

Massive toxic wastewater ponds from tar sands operations akin to mountaintop coal mining can be seen from space. Furthermore, tar sands pipelines have experienced hundreds of ruptures over the past decade, spilling more than one million gallons of oil that have polluted rivers, wetlands, and threatened wildlife.

8. Global Warming

Tar sand mining over time caused a devastating effect on the boreal forest of Alberta.  The boreal forest stores 11% of the world’s carbon and is our first line of defense against global warming.

Tar sands oil is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of energy; substituting it for conventional oil increases global warming emissions by 20%, which, of course, we need to reduce emissions by more than 20% shortly.

Furthermore, on a lifetime basis, a gallon of gasoline made from tar sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional oil.

Unfortunately, the carbon emissions associated with extracting tar sands could increase over time, as in-situ mining which creates more emissions than surface mining is used to extract bitumen located deeper and deeper in the earth.

9. Impact on Land Use

Oil production from tar sands uses large amounts of land (for open-pit mining), water, and energy when compared to other oil resources. Open-pit mining also produces a lot of waste (leftover sand, clays, and contaminants contained within the tar sands) that may pose a risk to nearby water supplies.

Some of the existing and planned attempts to mitigate the environmental impacts of mining tar sands include using non-potable and recycled water, moving to in-situ rather than open-pit mining to decrease land use and waste, and using carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction and use of oil from tar sands.

10.  Water Consumption

Tar sands also impact water supplies. The production process wastes enormous quantities of freshwater For every gallon of gasoline produced by tar sands, about 5.9 gallons (2.4 barrels) of freshwater are consumed during the extraction, upgrading, and refining process. That’s roughly three times as much as used for conventional oil.

Much of this water is polluted by toxic substances harmful to human health and the environment. When surface mining is used, the wastewater ends up in toxic storage ponds. These ponds can cover over 30 square miles making them some of the largest man-made structures on the planet.


The tar sands invasion has polluted our land, air, and water. We must stand up and say no to the real and widespread threats it represents to keep our environment safe.


Environmental Consultant at Environment Go!

Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.

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