Oil sands, or tar sands, are a complex mixture of bitumen, oil, sand, water and clay.
Environmentally, oil sands are one of the worst forms of energy. A joint report by WWF-UK and The Co-operative Bank highlights that their development is taking the world in the wrong direction.
Their extraction causes three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil production, and destroys the local environment – devastating boreal (or northerly coniferous) forests and using massive amounts of river water.
They contribute to climate change, and create dangerous waste including poisonous water that leaks into the wider environment.
The Canadian government and oil industry are pinning their hopes on the untried technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) that would capture the carbon dioxide emissions from oil sands operations and store them underground.
However a campaign report has weighed up the evidence and found that the use of CCS technology in oil sands exploitation will not reduce the emissions enough to be considered as a climate solution.
Oil sands belong to a group of energy sources called unconventionals. Another energy source with serious environmental impacts is oil shale. Extracting this would produce eight times the carbon emissions of conventional oil production. Jim Hansen of NASA has said of oil shale: “squeezing oil from shale mountains is not an option that would allow our planet and its inhabitants to survive”.
Canada's oil sands developments are so large that they can be seen from space. So their physical impacts are easy to observe, but their effects on local communities are harder to quantify.
Extracting the oil requires huge amounts of water from the Athabasca River. Only 5-10% of the water is returned: the rest is too toxic, and is pumped into vast ponds that cover 130 sq km. A recent report makes a conservative estimate that 11 million litres of this toxic water is leaking into the Athabasca River and groundwater every day, raising concerns about serious long-term ecological impacts.
The First Nations communities that live downriver from the oil sands developments has seen an unusual number of cases of a rare cancer and other medical conditions. An investigation is under way into the high level of health problems in the community.
An unconventional future
There are huge plans to expand oil sands exploitation – over US$125 billion of projects are set to be developed by 2015. WWF recognises that the world needs energy, but in light of the threat posed by climate change, we believe the planet cannot afford to continue to develop oil sands.
We are calling for a halt in the expansion of projects to develop oil sands.
Tackling climate change
To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, WWF is promoting the rapid development of a low-carbon economy based on non-polluting, renewable energy sources.
Write to your MP. We’re calling on the government to require all UK-listed companies in the oil and gas, and power sectors to report on their total carbon liabilities.