Tar Sands: The Bitter Truth

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Cars have become a commodity that we can’t seem to do without. Cars transport food, supplies, and people. They get us from point A to point B, and they do so quickly. In many places, cars symbolize social status. The problem is cars consume gas, a derivative of oil, which is a limited resource here on Earth. We call certain cars “gas guzzlers”, but the truth is, we are the real gas guzzlers. Humans, the ones pumping out the crude oil to supply our incessant need for speed.

We are often ignorant when it comes to how gas is obtained and refined. We like to believe that the gas we put in our cars is the same as the black substance that is harvested from the Earth, but in reality, that is not the case. In most cases, bitumen, more commonly known as crude oil, is harvested by method of drilling. It then goes through an intensive process by which it eventually becomes the gas that we put in our cars. However, that process requires a lot of energy and causes extensive CO2 gas emissions, known for accelerating the melting polar ice caps.

Despite environmental repercussions, this system is extremely profitable for oil and gas companies. As a result, they will do anything to get their hands on as much crude oil as possible, even if it means destroying the Earth in the process. One alternative to drilling oil, for example, is harvesting tar sands.

Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. They are mined (usually strip mined) and then processed to extract the bitumen. Although the oil that is extracted is similar to the oil that is pumped from regular oil wells, the process that extracts the oil is more complex. In addition, the bitumen must be further upgraded before it can be refined. All this requires extra money and time, yet tar sands are still profitable enough for the companies to persist.

In Alberta, Canada, the use of tar sands for oil is especially prominent, despite promises from the Canadian government to protect the environment. Forests are clearcut, indigenous tribes are forced from their lands, and farmland is converted into wasteland in order to make way for the industrialization that inevitably comes along with tar sands. In some places, the amount of forest that is being clearcut is comparable to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Furthermore, the development (read: destruction) of the tar sands has contributed largely to Canada’s “fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions” (Greenpeace). Rivers are polluted, the air is laced with toxins, and entire habitats are being destroyed for the development of the tar sands. That, along with the poisoned and limited food supply (such as fish in polluted rivers), has led to the disappearances of entire species.

In addition to such environmental concerns, there are multiple human health and social costs. The pollution created and the toxic gases released have severely impacted the health of people living around the tar sands in Alberta. Disproportionately high amounts of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases have been discovered in small communities surrounding the sands. Sickness is rampant and the people suffer. Socially, there have been reports that substance abuse, suicide, gambling, and family violence have increased near the tar sands. Oil and gas companies argue that the tar sands generate more jobs, but at what cost? Related jobs are typically labor-intensive and dangerous, not to mention that workers must inhale intoxicated air while they work.

A further concern with tar sands is the amount of energy it takes to extract the oil. Typically, when oil is pumped it takes about one barrel of oil to generate a hundred new barrels. However, when the oil is extracted from tar sands, the ratio shrinks to 3:1, or sometimes even to 1.5:1 (Oil Sands Truth). Despite the greater amount of energy required, tar sands still generate just enough oil to be profitable to the oil companies. Of course, the profit margin is much smaller, and the environmental repercussions much greater, but our need for gas, as a society, continues to feed the exploitation of Earth’s natural resources.


“Tar Sands 101.” Oil Sands Truth. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014.

“Tar Sands.” Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace Canada, n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/campaigns/Energy/tarsands/>.