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General · 18th September 2013
Barry Saxifrage
In a nutshell
What the tar sands industry says: the climate pollution from continued rapid expansion of the tar sands will be small compared to US coal-fired power plants.

Even Canadian government marketing materials aimed at Americans feature this storyline.

What they don't tell you: the total climate impact of the tar sands will soon rival that from US coal if the tar sands industry carries through on their expansion plans.

In perspective: US-mined coal has put more climate pollution into our atmosphere than any other source on the planet. Last year its total climate impact exceeded all the fossil fuels burned in Central and South America. It was more than were burned in all of Africa, India or the Middle East.

The issue: Should we re-create a climate disaster of that scale with the tar sands?

At a glance
My chart below lets you quickly compare the full climate impact from production through burning from three large fossil carbon deposits:
1. Coal mined in the USA
2. Coal mined in Canada
3. Bitumen extracted from Alberta's tar sands

• The total climate impact from Alberta tar sands has surged to five times its 1990 level.
• In contrast, US and Canadian coal have the same climate impact today as they did in 1990.
• In 1990, the tar sands total climate impact was 4% of US-mined coal.
• Now it is nearly 20% of US-mined coal and 25% of US coal-fired power, and gaining rapidly.
• Carbon extraction from the tar sands tripled since 2000 -- equivalent to tripling Canada's coal mining.
• The tar sands industry has announced plans to quadruple their carbon extraction capacity by 2025. This is based on the "unconstrained" scenario in a recent Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) study. (see "geeky details" at bottom for discussion)
• If the industry carries through on their plans, the total climate impact of the tar sands would rival that from all the coal-fired power plants in the USA today.