Tar Sands Solutions Network

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Land & Species Impacts

Tar sands development disturbs a staggering amount of pristine boreal forest, creates giant toxic lakes that will be left behind, and will kill millions of songbirds, fish and caribou. 

Vast open-pit mines, and the proliferation of roads, pipelines and well sites have already removed tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and forest, and fragmented or destroyed wildlife habitat. If tar sands expansion plans are realized, it will forever undermine the ecological health of 140,000 square kilometres of boreal forest, an area the size of Florida and 20 per cent of Alberta’s land base.

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Tar sands expansion degrades the health of 20% of Alberta's land  
Key Issues:
- Only 0.15% of disturbed land has ever been "reclaimed" 
- Caribou and multiple bird species will be extirpated 
Current Status:
Federal and Provincial protection laws are inadequate and sensitive ecosystems are being destoyed  

Although tar sands companies are required to reclaim the lands they have disrupted, only one of the 715 square kilometres – just 0.15 per cent – of land that has been disturbed by tar sands mining operations has been certified as “reclaimed,” and there are no plans (because it is impossible) to restore the drained and destroyed wetlands that cover 60 per cent of the area. Even if reclamation takes places, the boreal forest will never be returned to its natural state, just a sterile but convenient shadow of its former self.

With tar sands development set to triple over the next two decades, it will put at risk some of North America’s most beloved wildlife species. Following steep declines over the last 20 years, there are only 900 woodland caribou, a legally listed threatened species, left in the tar sands region, and scientists predict that the expansion of tar sands development will push them to extinction. Over 30 million birds will be lost over the next 20 years due to tar sands development. 

Toxic tailings ponds, which now cover 176 square kilometres, will eventually expand to 250 square kilometres and will never be removed. The acutely toxic tailings will simply be allowed to settle to the bottom of large pits, which will be “capped” with fresh water. This is a highly controversial reclamation strategy, and there is no evidence that using these “end pit lakes” as toxic waste dumps is a safe, long-term strategy for reclaiming tailings waste.

These tailings ponds have already killed thousands of songbirds and waterfowl, and they threaten North America’s only natural whooping crane population, which migrates over the tar sands on its way to its breeding grounds.

The only way to avoid creating a vast ravaged, empty, and toxic landscape is to prevent the expansion of the tar sands, and eventually phase this dirty energy source out of existence.

Land & Species Impacts Updates & Resources

Incredible photos of tar sands by Pulitzer Center journalists


Carol Linnitt | DeSmog Canada - April 9th 2014

Blog Post: Journalist Dan Grossman and photographer Alex MacLean are in the middle of their week-long tour of the Alberta oilsands. Their on-the-scene reporting is meant to bring greater public attention to the scale – and the stakes – of developing oil from the world’s largest deposit of carbon-intensive bitumen.

Species At Risk Act: Court finds ‘enormous systemic problem’ in enforcement


Bruce Cheadle | Canadian Press - February 17th 2014

Press Clipping: A Federal Court judge has ruled that the environment minister and the fisheries minister both broke the law by failing to enforce the Species at Risk Act. The challenge was brought by five environmental organizations, who asked the court to enforce provisions under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) for the Nechako white sturgeon, the pacific humpback whale, the marbled murrelet and the southern mountain woodland caribou. The court decision could put a damper on Enbridge’s plan to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would impact all of these SARA-listed species.

Keystone XL would generate up to 24 million tons of additional annual carbon emissions

October 14th 2013

Visual: From the tar sands mine or drilling operation to the automobile gas tank, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 81 percent greater than those of conventional oil. Keystone XL, by moving 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands into the Gulf and offsetting less carbon intensive crudes, would generate up to 24.3 million metric tons of additional annual carbon emissions. To put that in perspective, to make up for that, Americans would have to drive 60 billion fewer miles per year.

Mercury increasing in birds downstream of Canada’s oil sands

Brian Bienkowski | Environmental Health News - October 10th 2013

Press Clipping: Mercury levels are increasing in the eggs of water birds that nest downstream of Canada’s oil sands region, according to a new study. Eggs of Ring-billed Gulls collected from northern Alberta’s Mamawi Lake in 2012 had 139 percent more mercury than in 2009. Also, smaller increases in mercury were found in three species of gulls and terns at Egg Island.

State Department ignores Keystone XL’s ugly toll on endangered wildlife


Tar Sands Solutions - September 25th 2013

Blog Post: A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that the State Department’s review of the Keystone XL pipeline woefully underestimates the impacts it would have on some of America’s most endangered species, including whooping cranes, northern swift foxes, piping plovers, pallid sturgeon, American burying beetles and others.