Bituminous sands, generally known as oil sands or tar sands, are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit. The sands contain naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen (or colloquially “tar” due to its similar appearance, odour, and colour). Oil sands are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela.
The tar sands are huge deposits of bitumen, a tar-like substance that’s turned into oil through complex and energy-intensive processes that cause widespread environmental damage – polluting the Athabasca River, lacing the air with toxins and turning farmland into wasteland. Large areas of the Boreal Forest are being clearcut to make way for development in the tar sands, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
Greenpeace is also concerned with the social and health costs of the oil sands. First Nations communities in the tar sands report unusually high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases. Their traditional way of life has been threatened. Substance abuse, suicide, gambling and family violence have increased in the tar sands. The thousands of workers brought in by oil companies face a housing crisis in northern Alberta.
While the tar sands are often touted as Canada’s economic driver, from a social costs standpoint, Albertans are paying a hefty price. The Alberta government has been cutting essential social services from hospital beds to Aboriginal services, while oil companies rake in record profits. And while the tar sands create jobs in the short term, two out of three jobs are in construction, meaning once the initial work is completed, those jobs disappear.
The next environmental hurdle for the proponents of the Oil Sans project is to build a pipeline to the U.S. which has activists around the world enraged. A recent headline from Washington D.C. stated: The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has become the marquee environmental bout of the 2012 election season, with serious implications for President Obama’s campaign and the future of the North American environmental movement.
At stake is what has quickly become the largest environmental test for Obama before the 2012 election: The president must choose whether or not to grant a Canadian company a permit to build a 1,700-mile pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists warn that the pipeline could cause a BP disaster right in America’s heartland, over the largest source of fresh drinking water in the country, the Ogallala Aquifer. The nation’s top climatologist, James Hansen, has warned that if the Canadian tar sands are fully developed, it could be “game over” for the climate.