Tar Sands Solutions Network

Join Us On:

Air & Water Issues

The rapid expansion of the tar sands is creating a world-class pollution problem. Industry uses as much fresh water as a large Canadian city and almost none of it is returned to the natural environment. Ninety-five per cent of this water is so polluted it has to be stored in toxic sludge pits that cover 176 square kilometres, held back by two of the three largest dams on the planet. An estimated 11 million litres of toxic wastewater leaks into the Athabasca River every day.

Tar sands oil production also emits twice as much air pollution as conventional oil, which contributes to acid rain and emits significant amounts of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants to the region's lakes and rivers.

Learn More

Tar sands uses an immense amount of water and creates a massive pollution problem
Proposed Scale:
- 95% of fresh water used is not returned to the natural environment
- 11M litres of toxic tailings water leaks into the boreal forest every day
- Air quality limits were exceeded 1,500 times in 2007
Current Status:
Governments have failed to live up to promises or enforce regulations to manage pollution  

Producing a barrel of tar sands oil creates more than twice as much nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions as a barrel of conventional oil. Every year, tar sands operations spew into the air more than 45,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 115,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and 74,000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds. According to Environment Canada, tar sands pollution exceeded Alberta’s already weak air quality objectives more than 1,500 times in 2007, 47 times more than in 2004.

Nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide are major contributors to acid rain, which acidify lakes and streams and damage trees and sensitive forest soils. Volatile organic compounds such as benzene are known carcinogens. When combined together, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react to form ground-level ozone, or smog, which contributes to climate change.

Many of these pollutants return to earth to pollute the region’s rivers and streams, and leaking tailings ponds are polluting groundwater reserves. Recent research indicates that tar sands pollutants considered toxic and/or carcinogenic are accumulating in surface and ground water downstream from tar sands development. One recent study found concentrations 2.5 to 23 times higher in lake sediments than they were 50 years ago. These pollutants are dangerous to human and animal health at very low concentrations.

The majority of the water used by the tar sands industry is taken from the Athabasca River, which flows into the Peace-Athabasca Delta, recognized as one of the most important wetlands in the world. Water licenses allow current and proposed tar sands projects to withdraw as much as 15 per cent of the Athabasca River’s water flow during its lowest flow periods. As climate change reduces the amount of water in the river during the winter, these massive water withdrawals will reduce the amount of fish habitat and significantly undermine the health of the river’s ecosystem.

As tar sands development expands, so, too, will pollution. Water withdrawals and pollution will inevitably increase to dangerous and unsustainable levels, poisoning what’s left of the ground and surface waters. Preventing the expansion of the tar sands, and eventually phasing this dirty source of energy out is the only way to ensure that impacts to air and water in the region do not continue to exceed safe thresholds.

Air & Water Issues Updates & Resources

Oilsands water restrictions a climate change ‘preview:’ study


Bob Weber | Canadian Press - August 19th 2015

Press Clipping: Recent research predicts restrictions on energy companies withdrawing water from the Athabasca River are a preview of what's to come under climate change. Low summer water levels by mid-century could be costing the oilsands industry billions of dollars in lost production, said Simon Donner, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia and co-author of a paper published in Climate Change.

Oilsands cleanup may not be adequately funded: Alberta AG

Bob Weber | CP - July 7th 2015

Press Clipping: Alberta's auditor general says the province may not be requiring oilsands companies to save enough money to ensure their gigantic mines are cleaned up at the end of their life. "If there isn't an adequate program in place to ensure that financial security is provided by mine operators ... mine sites may either not be reclaimed as intended or Albertans could be forced to pay the reclamation costs," says a report released Monday by Merwan Saher.

Group asks new government to review oilsands water usage amid extreme wild fires


Carol Linnitt | Desmog Canada - May 29th 2015

Press Clipping: Conservation group Keepers of the Athabasca is asking the Alberta government to review water usage rules for oilsands companies as the province struggles with unseasonably low water levels and raging wild fires. Simon Dyer from the Pembina Institute, recommended the province implement a strong ecosystem limit that would place absolute restrictions — for all oilsands operators — on water withdrawal during low flow.

Scientists study impact of diluted bitumen spilled into ocean

May 27th 2015

Press Clipping: Federal scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography are studying the behaviour of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands when it spills into the ocean. They're finding it poses real challenges for any cleanup. "It is to a certain degree tougher to work with than conventional oil," says Thomas King of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "When it begins to sink it becomes more troublesome. We have to figure out ways to track, monitor and remediate sinking oil."

Winnipeg chapter supports report indicating that Energy East threatens Winnipeg’s drinking water


Brent Patterson | Council of Canadians - May 26th 2015

Blog Post: A report authored by Dennis LeNeveu, a retired biophysicist who worked for the federal Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, says that the Energy East pipeline threatens the drinking water of more than 60 per cent of Manitoba residents. “Winnipeg has much to lose from the pipeline crossing within its boundaries and little to gain.” The report was released by a Manitoba-based coalition in which the Council of Canadians Winnipeg chapter is a key member.

Oilsands companies might be better off not restoring wetlands, U of A ecologist says

Sheila Pratt | Edmonton Journal - March 31st 2015

Press Clipping: The effort to restore wetlands in the oilsands is so weak it might be better abandoned, an ecologist told a water forum Friday at the University of Alberta. Companies are now trying to construct new wetlands on their mine leases, but these have fewer native plants, different chemistry and may in fact pose dangers to wildlife, said Kevin Timoney. Even if the companies are successful, birds, for instance, would be drawn to these constructed wetlands just a few hundred metres from an active mine with power lines and tailings ponds, and that’s not healthy, he said. “Wetland reclamation efforts have failed for years — we are seeing the development of a national sacrifice zone,” he said.

Science vs Spin: Dilbit sinks in the real world, but not in studies funded by oil industry

Justin Mikulka | DeSmog Blog - March 27th 2015

Press Clipping: “Once the oil started to sink, it made things a lot more difficult on our recovery.” Those were the words of Greg Powell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during his presentation on March 10th at the National Academy of Sciences conference on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment. Powell was one of the people involved in the response and clean up of the Kalamazoo River tar sands dilbit spill in 2010 where an Enbridge pipeline cracked and spilled approximately one million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

There’s something really dirty going on in Canada that these celebrities want you to know about


March 20th 2015

Visual: One hundred celebrities, scientists, artists, elected officials, labor unions, progressive organizations, landowners, and climate activists have signed a letter for the president. In the Sierra Club’s most widely watched video ever, a bevy of celebrities make the case for rejecting Keystone XL and more business-as-usual dirty oil production.