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- - Tar Sands Development & Pipelines

Exploitation of the Alberta tar sands has increase substantially in the past few years, and the growing footprint of development is clearly evident from satellite imagery.

Oil companies, with the active support of the Canadian government, are moving forward with plans for an even more dramatic expansion of operations, despite the growing calls for a dramatic decrease in the use of fossil fuels, the key driver of climate change. Environmentalists are alarmed for many reasons:

  1. The tar sands are an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and represent the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada.

  2. The destruction of large areas of the boreal forest and effects on wildlife such as endangered Woodland Caribou.

  3. Pollution of the Athabasca River and the effect on downstream communities and aquatic ecosystems.

  4. Vast tailings ponds that pose a risk to birds and other wildlife.

  5. Proposals for long distance transport of large quantities of tar sands bitumen to offshore markets via pipelines, ocean tankers, rail or truck, which threaten sensitive ecosystems and aquifers.

  6. The highly toxic nature of tar sand bitumen and the chemical diluents that are employed to permit transport in pipelines.

  7. Tar sands bitumen sinks in rivers, lakes and wetlands, making clean up a daunting task, unlike conventional oil which tends to float and can often be skimmed from the surface.

  8. The gutting of federal (and some provinces’) environmental legislation to facilitate development of energy and other industrial projects.

  9. Environmental Assessment processes that are often little more than window-dressing.

  10. The fact that the National Energy Board's mandate in reviewing pipelines proposals does not permit discussion of the implications for climate change.

  11. The record of numerous, and in some cases catastrophic, oil spills along existing pipelines in Canada and the U.S.

  12. The fact that strong opposition to tar sands development from citizens, communities and First Nations along proposed pipeline routes is being ignored by the federal government.

The most pressing issue relates to long distance transport, because the proposed expansion of tar sands exploitation will require a huge increase in the capacity of pipelines, railways, trucks and/or ocean tankers to carry bitumen to offshore markets.

Tar Sands Pipelines:

Over the past decade there have been numerous controversial pipeline proposals to transport tar sands bitumen over vast distances. They have faced growing opposition as the implications of climate change have become widely known. As a result some projects have been halted, although other continue to be pressed forward.

Trans Mountain: This expansion proposal would greatly expand the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Edmonton, Alberta and Burnaby, British Columbia to 890,000 BPD. The pipeline is increasingly being used to transport tar sand bitumen and poses a risk to sensitive ecosystems along the route which traverses Jasper National Park and the Fraser River watershed. In addition, supertanker traffic will greatly increase through Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia, posing a threat to coastal waters and ecosystems. A recent report by Simon Fraser University and the Goodman Group concludes that "the pipeline project is not in the economic or public interest of the citizens of BC and, in particular, the citizens of Metro Vancouver". Protests over the proposal are increasing, with numerous environmentalists being arrested over work on the project being carried out at Burnaby Mountain.

      See Wilderness Committee website and Simon Fraser University-Goodman Group report

Keystone XL: Keystone XL is a pipeline that would transport 830,000 BPD of tar sands bitumen to Nebraska, as part of a pipeline system extending to the Gulf coast of Texas. It will cross many waterways, as well as the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest source of freshwater in the United States. This proposal faces strong opposition in both the U.S. and Canada because of implications for increased Alberta tar sands development and climate change, as well as threats to the Ogallala Aquifer which has already been seriously depleted by agricultural irrigation. The project has received government approval in Canada. In the United States, it was rejected by President Obama, but later approved by President Trump. It still faced a number of court challenges.
     See Sierra Club report

Line 9: Line 9 is the east-central Canada portion of a pipeline that will carry 300,000 BPD of tar sands bitumen from Alberta to a supertanker terminal on the coast of Maine. It will cross numerous tributaries of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River between Sarnia and Montreal. Opposition has focused on threats to aquatic ecosystems of the lower Great Lakes, the ecologically sensitive Algonquin to Adirondacks (A2A) region and the lower St. Lawrence River, as well as on expansion of the tar sands development.
     See NRCD report

Alberta Clipper [Line 67]It is proposed to nearly double the capacity of the existing Alberta Clipper pipeline which runs from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin on Lake Superior to 880,000 BPD. This large increase in tar sands bitumen will have an effect on Alberta tar sands expansion, on wetlands along the route and on the aquatic ecosystem of Lake Superior. In addition, it is linked to proposals to ship crude oil through the Great Lakes. This expansion proposal is currently under review.

Northern Gateway (abandoned): The Northern Gateway pipeline would have transported 500,000 barrels per day (BPD) of tar sands bitumen across hundreds of British Columbia rivers and streams to the coastal community of Kitimat where it would have been loaded on supertankers plying the dangerous and ecologically sensitive waters of the Douglas Channel and Hecate Strait. Many species including salmon on inland waterways and whales in coastal waters were considered at grave risk from this proposal. The proposal faced stiff opposition from environmental organizations, First Nations and other communities along the route. Even the residents of Kitamat, site of the proposed coastal oil terminal, voted to reject the pipeline in a referendum. Despite the opposition, the Canadian government under Steven Harper approved the pipeline in principle subject to a series of conditions. However, it was later rejected by the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau.

Energy East (abandoned): Energy East was another proposed tar sands pipeline, the largest in North America, that would have transported 1,100,000 BPD of bitumen across hundreds of rivers and streams from Alberta to terminals on the east coast at St. John New Brunswick. In this case the route passes through northern and eastern Ontario. It would have followed the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers, the area of highest seismic hazard in eastern Canada. The aquatic ecosystems of the Algonquin to Adirondacks (A2A) region and the lower St. Lawrence River were considered to have been at risk. Opposition to this proposal in eastern Canada was intense, especially in Quebec. Strong opposition to the construction of a tanker shipping terminal on the St. Lawrence River, a threat to the habitat of the threatened beluga whale, resulted in the proponent withdrawing a proposal for a tanker terminal on the river. However, threats from oil spills into the St. Lawrence were still of major concern to environmentalists. The proponent ha now abandoned the entire project. Unfortunately, there is continued pressure for the oil industry to see this project revived.

”NO PIPELINE” OPTION: The question that needs to be asked is not which pipeline proposal is best. Rather it is whether any of these tar sands pipelines should be built. Many environmentalists are advocating a “no pipeline” option. If climate change is to be brought under control, it is critical that fossil fuel use be drastically and quickly reduced as described in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in November 2014. Tar sands bitumen is of particularly concern because it produces significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. Therefore, no new or expanded pipeline proposals for tar sands bitumen should be approved. Instead, a strategy is needed to reduce the production of tar sands oil and its transport whether by pipeline or by other means such as rail, truck or water. That strategy must be focused on energy conservation and development of clean energy sources.

Rail, Truck and Tanker Transport:
Although the issue of moving tar sands bitumen by pipeline is receiving the most attention, the use of other means of transport is equally problematic, whether by rail, truck or water. They all facilitate the expansion of tar sands development and increase of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, there are major safety concerns for ecosystems, wildlife and people. The safety record for rail transport of dangerous goods is appalling, as was brought home with the horrific and deadly explosion of a train carrying bitumen in the heart of the small Quebec town of Lac Megantic in 2013. There have been an endless series of train derailments in recent years, leaving no reason of optimism about this form of transport. Transporting tar sands oil by water on either the east or west coast presents great danger to sensitive ecosystems in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy and the coastal waterways of British Columbia. There are even proposals to ship tar sands bitumen through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway where a spill could cause irreparable damage to inland aquatic ecosystems.


If Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced in a timely fashion, it is critical that tar sands expansion be halted. Therefore, increasing the capacity to move tar sands bitumen by any means - pipelines, rail, truck or water - should not be permitted. This is also important in order to stop the destruction of ecosystems in the tar sands region of northern Alberta, and to prevent damage to ecosystems and communities along the numerous routes that carry or are proposed to carry bitumen.  

Discuss this issue with your elected representatives and with candidates in upcoming elections. Find out their position. Insist that they take a stand against tar sands expansion.