New Internationalist

Taking on Tarmageddon

April 2010

The tar sands are the most destructive project on earth – and the campaign to shut them down is gathering momentum. Jess Worth reports from the thick of it.

Photo by: Thomas Ball
Man and machine: the scale of the project is mind-boggling. This 170 metre long bucket-wheel reclaimer is used to shift tar sands along conveyor belts. Photo by: Thomas Ball

‘If local indigenous communities tell us they don’t want the Sunrise Project, then of course we won’t do it,’ Peter Mather, boss of BP UK, said to me earnestly.

I could barely believe my ears. Was the oil giant, poised to enter the tar sands for the first time, really claiming it would be prepared to back down in the face of local opposition? My strange evening had just got stranger.

I was in Oxford’s swanky Randolph Hotel. It was last October, and I’d gone with a group of student activists to BP’s flagship graduate recruitment event. The company had really pulled the stops out, lavishing free wine and canapés on around 100 engineering and geology students, perhaps in the hope of giving them a taste of what life could be like if they worked for the transnational.

The fact that the head of BP UK himself was there to deliver the slick presentation told us how important this event was. The oil industry as a whole is facing a huge human resource crisis, with the average age of employees 49 years and the average retirement age 55. The industry is currently an estimated 100,000 people short.1 Getting good staff is key to a company’s survival.

So Peter Mather can’t have been best pleased when – as soon as he started speaking to Oxford’s crème de la crème about how dynamic, green and successful his company was – two of our gang jumped up, took the stage, and delivered an alternative presentation. ‘There is no clearer demonstration of BP’s determination to ignore the risks of climate change than its decision to invest in Canada’s tar sands,’ they told the bemused audience who, like most people in Britain, seemed largely unaware that the tar sands even existed.

‘Extracting oil from these sludgy deposits produces three to five times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil,’ the young campaigners continued, laying out some of the jaw-dropping facts surrounding what has come to be known as the most destructive project on earth.

‘The tar sands are the biggest industrial development in the world, and the second fastest source of deforestation. They are leaving a hole the size of England in the Canadian wilderness. The lakes of toxic waste sludge are visible from space!’

Questions from the floor were dominated by concerns about the environmental and human impact of tar sands. Why was BP – which had so famously rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ – choosing to enter the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel development on the planet, with a massive 200,000 barrels per day extraction project known as ‘Sunrise’? Peter Mather’s defence was spirited but unconvincing.

They are leaving a hole the size of England in the Canadian wilderness. The lakes of toxic sludge can be seen from space

Afterwards, I cornered him. Sunrise had been put on hold the year before due to the plummeting price of oil. BP still hadn’t taken the final decision to proceed. Mather wouldn’t be drawn on when this would be, but when I pushed him on the widespread opposition amongst local First Nations communities, he made the extraordinary claim that if they didn’t want the project, it wouldn’t go ahead. ‘Let’s put that theory to the test…,’ I thought to myself.

Our brush with BP last October marked the opening salvo in the newest battlefront to shut down the tar sands. Since then, opposition has mushroomed and the company, although still sitting on the fence about a start-date, has come out fighting. Right now, both sides are rallying their troops for what is shaping up to be a defining moment in the history of humanity’s doomed love affair with oil.

Toxic sacrifice

I first became aware of the tar sands a year ago, when I attended an indigenous climate summit in Alaska and met a group of activists from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a trailblazing organization that links and supports struggles by indigenous communities against environmental destruction and the fossil fuel industry.

One of them – Clayton Thomas-Muller – showed me photos on his laptop of what he called the ‘toxic sacrifice zone’ in northern Alberta. It blew my mind. The vast black scars that had replaced swathes of pristine boreal forest – the world’s second-most important carbon sink after the Amazon. The tens of thousands of workers, flown in from around the world, living in work camps and in the boomtown of Fort McMurray which is experiencing intense social problems as a result. The tailings ponds of waste so poisonous that when 1,600 ducks accidentally landed on one they all died instantly.2 The cancers, respiratory disease and other illnesses being experienced by the local First Nations communities on whose ancestral land all this is taking place.

The effort to shut down the tar sands is shaping up to be one of the iconic struggles of our age

‘How could this be happening?’ I wondered, incredulous. ‘And in Canada, of all places?’ I’d always thought of Canada as the US’s far more sensible, progressive, environmentally responsible neighbour. It came as a real shock to discover the Canadian Government was positioning the country as the new Saudi Arabia. ‘How could you not have known?’ asked Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, another member of the IEN crew, equally incredulous – she has been fighting the tar sands and its tragic impact on her community all her adult life.

I was embarrassed at my ignorance, and felt a responsibility to do something. When I got back to Oxford, I did a bit of digging and discovered that, while the tar sands are being extracted in Alberta, they are being funded, to a significant degree, by British banks, financial institutions and corporations. Shell, BP and the Royal Bank of Scotland are all major players, investing heavily in this last, desperate attempt to scrape the bottom of the oil barrel now conventional sources are running dry.

Furthermore, I learnt, the project could tip us over the edge into climate catastrophe all by itself. Scientists and civil society organizations around the world have called for atmospheric carbon to be stabilized at below 350 parts per million (ppm) in order to avoid the worst impacts of runaway climate change. Current levels are already at 387ppm and rising at about 2ppm annually. The full exploitation of the massive Canadian tar sands and US tar shale reserves could increase atmospheric carbon in the region of between 49 and 65ppm.3

If the tar sands aren’t curbed, I realized, it’s hard to see how we have a chance of stabilizing the climate before it’s too late. And right now, indigenous people are dying due to pollution from this ‘bloody oil’. It’s a question of climate justice. We have no choice – we have to shut the tar sands down.

So, since returning, I have thrown myself into the effort to internationalize the campaign. Along with a growing band of ‘tarsandistas’ I have helped organize visits to Britain by Clayton, Eriel and others from affected First Nations communities. They have travelled the country, telling their story at activist gatherings, student conferences, Parliamentary meetings and cultural events. They have led protests and encouraged organizations to take on the campaign.

Awareness about the tar sands in Britain has exploded, and the Canadian press has hung on our every move, reporting to their public – many of whom are mortified – that Canada’s reputation is taking a battering across the pond.

What are tar sands?


Tar sands are basically oily soil. They are sticky deposits of bitumen mixed with sand and clay, which require enormous quantities of energy and water, and several stages of industrial processing, to extract and turn into useable crude oil.

Canada’s tar sands

  • Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world, currently producing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day.
  • Largely located in Alberta, the tar sands cover 140,000 km2 – an area larger than England.
  • Canada has the second largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia.
  • Canada is the biggest supplier of oil to the US, the world’s largest oil consumer.

‘Back to Petroleum’

The effort to sever Britain’s links with the tar sands will reach a crescendo in the next few months. A coalition of shareholders in Shell and BP has filed resolutions at both companies’ Annual General Meetings, questioning the wisdom of investing in such an unsustainable and risky enterprise, and pointing out that potential First Nations lawsuits and pending climate legislation in the US and elsewhere could make tar sands the costliest mistake Big Oil ever made.

Furthermore, industry analysts are starting to question the economics underpinning tar sands oil. The rationale has always been that, although tar sands are much more expensive to exploit than conventional crude, the price of oil will continue to rise as production elsewhere peaks, meaning bumper profits on the enormous upfront investment in the medium- to long-term. But there is growing evidence that global oil demand may peak in the next decade, as consumers and industry refuse to pay over a certain price per barrel and turn instead to efficiency savings and alternative energy sources.4 The foregone conclusion that humanity will always be addicted to oil may, in fact, be wrong.

As shareholders hold meetings behind closed doors, trying to decide whether to support the tar sands resolutions, a coalition of NGOs and trade unions – of which New Internationalist is part – is encouraging people all over the world to ask their pension funds, insurance companies and banks to cast their votes. Meanwhile, representatives from affected First Nations communities are making plans to be at the AGMs in person to put BP and Shell on the spot over indigenous rights.

Photo by Greenpeace / EM
Going nowhere: a Greenpeace activist locks on to a truck, blocking work at the Shell Albian Sands mine Photo by Greenpeace / EM

At the same time, campaigners are increasingly turning to direct action to target these companies. Last September, Greenpeace blockaded Shell’s massive Albian Sands mine in Alberta, disrupting work for 30 hours – followed swiftly by another action which occupied a Shell construction site. In Britain, activists are gearing up for a ‘Fortnight of Shame’ in the run-up to BP’s AGM.

The two oil giants have responded very differently to this sudden escalation of pressure. Shell, already heavily invested in extraction projects and in it for the long haul, surprised everyone by announcing in late January that it had scaled back its plans for expansion5 – although it will still be increasing production by a planet-cooking 100,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day.6

BP, however, seems to have belatedly discovered a taste for bitumen. Until now the only major oil multinational to stay out of the tar sands, it has clearly decided to go Back to Petroleum – with a vengeance. In the same week as Shell was announcing its change of heart, Anne Drinkwater, the head of BP Canada, flew to London. Joining forces with my sparring partner Peter Mather, they unleashed a high-level charm offensive, giving Sunrise the hard-sell to investors and NGOs. A few days later, it was reported that the company is bidding to buy another, even bigger, tar sands lease.7

Greenwashing the ungreenable

How on earth can BP, a company that has spent millions of PR dollars shoring up its claims to be producing ‘energy that is affordable, secure and doesn’t damage the environment’, justify this move into Tarmageddon? By claiming the Sunrise Project will be ‘green’, of course – a last-ditch strategy increasingly being employed by major tar sands operators and the Canadian Government, all of whom are spinning furiously in the face of criticism of their ecosystem-trashing ways.

Needless to say, it’s nonsense. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the Sunrise method of mining deeper deposits, known as ‘in situ’, is even more energy- and water-intensive than the much uglier surface mines, and its greenhouse gas emissions will be up to three times higher. Solemn promises to introduce carbon capture and storage (CCS) sometime in the future have been branded a ‘dangerous myth’ by WWF and The Co-operative, who conclude that this unproven technology is unlikely to reduce emissions from the tar sands significantly until at least 2050.8 And CCS, even if it worked, would do nothing to prevent the toxic by-products that are killing people in indigenous communities downstream.

BP claims that because Sunrise is not a surface-mining operation there will be no tailings ponds and minimal damage to the ecosystem. This is also just plain wrong. The fragmentation of the boreal forest by well-pads, pipelines and processing facilities for this type of operation devastates bird and animal habitats.9 Alberta’s caribou herds, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, are ‘almost doomed’ as a result.10

Furthermore, there is still a serious risk of water pollution. Sunrise, like many ‘in situ’ projects, is right on top of Canada’s biggest aquifer. BP cannot guarantee it won’t be contaminated, given that accidental steam blowouts keep occurring in similar developments. Rick Boucher, vice-president of the local Métis Nation, fears that ‘it’s just a matter of time before an accident causes injury or death, and pollution of this massive underground freshwater system.’11

There is no way to ‘green’ the tar sands – we have to leave them in the ground. So now the task at hand is to force BP to drop its plans for Sunrise. Because if this were to happen, it would not simply mean that one potential project amongst many had been thwarted. If a combination of investor, public and First Nations pressure is successfully mobilized against BP it would send shock-waves through the entire oil industry and could even spell the beginning of the end for this particularly filthy source of fuel.

The effort to shut down the tar sands is shaping up to be one of the iconic struggles of our age – and it is starting to spread beyond Canada to every country that has major industrial and financial interests in the sprawling gigaproject. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Do we want oil from tar sands, or do we want a future? It’s as simple as that.

  1. http://sublimemagazine.com/view/a/29/Going,Going,Gone....html
  2. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/syncrude-back-in-court-over-hundreds-of-dead-ducks/article1485073/
  3. Based on calculations made in the report ‘Unconventional Oil – Scraping the bottom of the barrel?’, WWF, July 2009, page 42. See: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/unconventionaloilfinal_lowres.pdf
  4. Greenpeace UK, ‘BP and Shell: Rising Risk Tar Sands Update 2 July 2009’, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/climate/shifting-sands-bp-shell-rising-risks-update-2.pdf
  5. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8a34f042-0951-11df-ba88-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1
  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/feb/28/canada-tar-sands-investor-protest
  7. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industrysectors/naturalresources/article7026248.ece
  8. http://www.co-operative.coop/Corporate/PDFs/Tar%20Sands%20CCS.pdf
  9. http://www.oilsandswatch.org/blog/53
  10. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/protect-caribou-in-oils-sands-area-wilderness-group-pleads/article1452579/
  11. http://stoptarsands.wordpress.com/2008/07/28/tar-sands-industry-poised-to-pollute-canadas-largest-freshwater-aquifer/

Tar sands facts

Future expansion

  • $86 billion has been invested since 2000 in the construction of mines, upgraders, pipelines, refineries and steam plants, with $125bn in development underway or planned.1 
  • By 2020 Canada’s tar sands could produce more greenhouse gases than Austria, Portugal, Ireland or Denmark.
  • The plan is for production to increase from today’s 1.3 million barrels per day to 3-5 million by 2030.

Resource-intensive

Tar sands are the most energy-intensive fossil fuel in commercial production:

  • The extraction process emits three to five times more CO2 than conventional oil.2
  • Enough natural gas is used in the tar sands every day to heat 3.2 million Canadian homes for 24 hours. The development will be using enough gas to heat all 11.5 million Canadian homes by 2012.3
  • It takes 3 to 7 barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. That’s between 230 and 530 million cubic metres a year. By comparison, the city of Toronto, with 2.5 million residents, uses 450 million cubic metres a year.
  • Giant toxic ‘tailings ponds’ of waste cover 130 square km and are visible from space.
  1. Unless indicated otherwise, all statistics are taken from ‘Dirty oil: how the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis’ by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greenpeace, September 2009
  2. Environment Canada, 2007, National Inventory Report Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada 1990-2005
  3. ‘Oil Sands Fever: the environmental implications of Canada’s Oil Sands Rush’, Dan Woynillowicz, Pembina Institute, November 2005, p.15

This feature was published in the April 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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