Tar sands pipeline protests explainer

Why are a bunch of activists willing to get themselves arrested outside the White House? What's so bad about tar sands? Follow the #nokxl tag on Twitter for the latest


  1. Let's start at the beginning. The tar sands in Athabasca are bitumen-rich sands in Alberta, Canada. They are among the dirtiest ways to extract fuel from the earth, and they destroy the landscape because the extraction process is similar to open-cast mining. 

    Lawyer Polly Higgins is campaigning to make the tar sands an international crime under a new law of 'Ecocide', and Naomi Klein compares the sight of the excavation of the landscape in Alberta to "terrestrial skinning" - an act she calls mass insanity. See KleinWoolf's TED talk below.

  2. Naomi Klein: Addicted to risk
  3. As Klein Woolf points out above, the US is the number one importer of oil from Canada's tar sands. You can hear the audience gasp, it is so little known. You can see a neat infographic illustrating the US' oil imports by region below.

  4. Here are some images of the tar sands:

  5. Ugly: aesthetically and morally.

  6. Before and after pictures show you just what pristine Boreal forest landscapes have been bulldozed to gain access to the tar.

  7. Athabasca Oil Sands : Image of the Day
    Athabasca Oil Sands : Image of the Day
  8. An image of the Athabasca tar sands by NASA - taken on 29 July 2009. Check out the size of the tailing pond, which can be seen by the naked eye from space - ponds of water mixed with toxic by-products of the extraction process. Greenpeace have something to say about that.

    Below we can find out more about the processes that turn tar sand gunk into crude oil:

  9. Infographic: A Closer Look at Tar Sands Oil | Circle of Blue WaterNews
    Infographic: A Closer Look at Tar Sands Oil | Circle of Blue WaterNews
  10. This is a useful infographic (above) showing the process of removing bitumen from the soil to end up with crude oil. For every barrel of crude oil that is made from the tar sands, it takes:

    - 185 gallons of water
    - 2 tonnes of soil
    - 700- 1,200 cubic ft of natural gas
    - and creates: 170 pounds of greenhouse gases.

    This is pretty simplified, and to get more detail on the pollution and emissions of the tar sands see this explainer from Skeptical Science, below: 

  11. A highlight of the above post is:

    "According to a recent US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment, tar sands well-to-tank emissions are approximately 82% higher than conventional oil."

    It also describes how the Keystone XL pipeline could contribute over 1 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere according to the EPA.

    Below you can see a map of the proposed 1,600-mile long Keystone XL pipeline, which will - if it goes ahead - go through some of the US' prime farmland. There are concerns over pipe leaks, especially following several leaks of the initial Keystone pipeline, which is only a year old.

  12. Keystone XL pipeline Map
    Keystone XL pipeline Map
  13. All of the concern over the environmental impacts of the pipeline have led to a protests on the lawn of the White House, and a national debate about whether Keystone XL is good for the US.

    Below is the invitation to engage in civil disobedience from the Tar Sands Action campaign.  

  14. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben has helped to organise the protests.
  15. Bill Mckibben Speaks to Action Participants
    Bill Mckibben Speaks to Action Participants
  16. A key passage of the invitation: 

    "As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate "the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground." In other words, he added, "if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over." "

    (There are also some useful links to factsheets at the bottom.)

  17. The director of Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland has made a short film and call to action about the tar sands... some amazing footage on here of the sands giving a sense of scale. As Fox says, the tar sands excavations are the size of Florida, or England. 

  18. Josh Fox for the Tar Sands Action
  19. Below are two debates on Democracy Now on whether Keystone XL should be allowed to go ahead. These took place on the eve of the first protest outside the White House.

    A bit long, but well worth watching!