What are tar sands?

Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world, currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Largely located in Alberta, the tar sands deposits are distributed over an area of 140,000 km² – an area larger than England. Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and is the biggest supplier of oil to the US, the world’s largest oil consumer. Tar sands deposits also exist outside of Canada.

Climate impact

Already, millions of barrels of tar sands oil have been extracted from under the Canadian wilderness, producing three to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil extraction and using enough natural gas every day to heat three million Canadian homes. Add to this the mass deforestation the project is causing and it becomes clear that the tar sands must be shut down if we are serious about tackling disastrous climate change. In fact, leading climate scientist James Hansen has stated that runaway climate change will be inevitable if tar sands extraction is allowed to continue as planned. Unsurprisingly, tar sands development has been labelled “the Most Destructive Project on Earth“. More climate facts »

Effects on Indigenous communities

The impact of the Alberta tar sands on local First Nations communities is devastating. Tar sands developments create toxic tailings ponds so huge they are visible from space, which leak poisons into the local water supply. Tar sands developments scar sacred territories, disturb traditional cultural practices and undermine constitutionally-enshrined treaty rights. Communities are experiencing disturbingly high rates of rare cancers and auto-immune diseases.

UK involvement

Although very little tar sands oil is currently flowing through UK petrol pumps, large amounts of investment are coming from UK banks and corporations. Shell is already heavily involved, and BP has recently announced its entry into tar sands extraction via the Sunrise project. The Royal Bank of Scotland is the world’s 7th largest investor, using taxpayers’ money to fund climate disaster. HSBC and Barclays are also major financiers. Under the direction of BP, Shell and the Canadian government, the UK government is currently stalling climate legislation that would discourage the import of tar sands oil to the EU. Meanwhile, refining company Valero is already planning how it will bring tar sands oil to the UK.

Tailings pond north of Syncrude. Photo by David Dodge, Pembina Institute


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The numbers »

  • Producing a barrel of tar sands oil creates three to four times more climate pollution than producing conventional crude oil.
  • A full “wells-to-wheels” lifecycle analysis by the US Department of Energy shows tar sands oil creates 22% more climate pollution than conventional crude oil.
  • Climate pollution per barrel has increased 21% in the last few years.
  • Climate pollution from the tar sands has doubled in the last decade — and is predicted to more than double again in the coming decade.
  • Climate pollution from producing tar sands oil is projected to hit 104 MtCO2 by 2020. That is twice current emissions from Norway or Bangladesh — and exceeds the combined emissions from 85 nations.

More facts »

Further Information

On our resources page we outline the detailed briefings we have produced on:


External links:

  • oilsandsrealitycheck.org  – created by a network of science-based environmental groups, working with First Nations for citizens, this is a one-stop-shop for tar sands facts, all cited with sources and reviewed by a scientific advisory committee.
  • oilsandswatch.orga project of the Pembina Institute, a not-for-profit think tank aiming “to advance sustainable energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting and advocacy.”
  • tarsandssolutions.orga growing international network of organizations including First Nations, environmental groups, landowners, farmers, scientists, community leaders, academics, and grassroots groups, focussed on stopping the expansion of the Canadian tar sands and its infrastructure of pipelines and tankers.
  • and the special issue of the New Internationalist:
    • ‘Taking on Tarmageddon’ The tar sands are the most destructive project on earth – and the campaign to shut them down is gathering momentum.
    • ‘Canada’s curse’ The zealous pursuit of dirty oil is transforming Canada into a corrupt petro-state.
    • ‘I’ll die doing this’ Indigenous people are getting ill as a result of tar sands pollution.
    • ‘Rock that Burns’ When they hear ‘tar sands’, most people think ‘Canada’. But companies are eyeing up dirty oil deposits all over the world.

Find out how we can stop the tar sands.