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Tar Sands

Tar sands—also called oil sands—are a combination of sand, clay, water, and bitumen. One of the dirtiest fuel sources, these sands are mined in order to extract their bitumen, which can be refined into oil. The production and processing of tar sands oil produces three to four times the amount of carbon emissions as conventional oil, as the extraction process is more energy-intensive.

The proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline would have stretched from the tar sands fields in Canada down through the United States. The Keystone XL Pipeline would have added 1,100 miles of pipeline and 830,000 barrels per day of polluting oil. The Obama administration's denial of the Keystone XL pipeline marks one of the first times a major fossil fuel infrastructure project was denied over concerns related to the wildlife-threatening carbon pollution it would spur.

After over six years of review and vigorous objections raised by wildlife enthusiasts, ranchers, and landowners over climate, habitat, and spill concerns, the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected by President Obama on November 6, 2015. The pipeline would have had far-reaching environmental impacts, including the development of one of the dirtiest fuel sources—tar sands oil. Tar sands production pollutes and destroys vital migratory bird habitat in Canada’s boreal forest. The pipeline would have also damaged ecosystems, fragmented habitat, and placed precious prairie streams and rivers at risk of oil spills along its route.

Unfortunately the tar sands industry is still seeking to expand tar sands pipelines into the United States in order to bring its landlocked product to new markets. Enbridge, Inc., the company responsible for the devastating 2010 tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River—the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history—is planning to expand its Great Lakes pipeline system and attempt to lock the U.S. into a dependence on dirty fuels and further drive the expansion of oil mining operations in Canada.

Click to see an enlarged map of pipeline projects »

In 2014, Enbridge worked behind the scenes to bypass the public and gain approval of a plan to switch flow among its existing pipes to increase tar sands transport through the Great Lakes and beyond by over 400,000 barrels per day. Enbridge now wants to replace and expand existing lines even further, allowing a total of about 1.1 million barrels per day of new tar sands to threaten lakes, habitat, wildlife, and the climate. While Keystone XL’s denial has helped contain dangerous tar sands growth, it is equally important to prevent Enbridge’s Great Lakes expansion plans.

Impacts to Communities and Wildlife

The Keystone XL would have sliced through America's agricultural heartland, the Missouri, Platte, and Niobrara Rivers; the Ogallala aquifer; habitat for sage-grouse and sandhill cranes; walleye fisheries; and much more. Our public water supplies, croplands, and recreational opportunities would have been at risk of dangerous tar sands oil spills like the million-gallon Enbridge oil spill in Michigan.

Now precious resources in the Great Lakes region and beyond face a similar risk. Loons, wolves, moose, and other wildlife would be directly impacted if an Enbridge pipeline had another disaster like 2010 Kalamazoo spill.

In Canada, the risk to wildlife is equally great. The extraction of tar sands oil from the evergreen forests of Alberta, Canada, requires significantly more energy than conventional oil, as bitumen, a tar-like petroleum product, needs to be separated from sand and clay in a complex process that used large quantities of chemicals and water. It takes three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil, and after the process is complete most of the water is too polluted for other use and must be stored in vast man-made storage pools called tailing ponds. These ponds pose a pollution risk to the surrounding water ways and a hazard to migrating birds.

Tar sands oil also results in the clearing of vast tracts of boreal forest, one of our best natural defenses against climate change, as these forests store and sequester carbon dioxide, a leading cause of climate change.

Protect Northeast Moose from Dangerous Tar Sands Oil »

Growth of Tar Sands Across the Midwest

The Midwest and Great Lakes are quickly becoming the hub for transporting and refining tar sands oil, one of the world's dirtiest and most destructive fossil fuels on the planet.

The Enbridge Pipeline Boom

Pipelines in the area are nothing new, but over the last several years the region’s infrastructure has seen a dramatic transformation: a Canadian company, Enbridge Incorporated, is undertaking a massive expansion of their system in the Great Lakes basin, and the industry is working to link new and existing pipelines to reach the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, where they can sell to refiners on the international market.

If Enbridge is successful, not only would it cause pain at the pump for Midwestern drivers, but it would lay the groundwork for an explosion of new tar sands development in Canada, boosting carbon emissions and pushing our planet toward the brink of climate catastrophe. This increase in crude oil also exposes the already threatened Great Lakes to larger and more toxic pipeline spills. Plans are also being drawn up transport millions of gallons of tar sands oil via tanker and rail, an even riskier option than pipelines.

Not Just a Climate Threat

In the summer of 2010 Enbridge was responsible for the largest and costliest inland oil spill in U.S. history, when a pipeline rupture sending over a million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River system, poisoning people and wildlife for miles around. This disaster underscored the weakness of our state and federal safety regulations, but also showed how unprepared the industry is to respond to a toxic spill: almost three years later the river remains polluted despite Enbridge spending nearly $1 billion on the cleanup.

Watch this story about Beth Wallace, a National Wildlife Federation employee whose hometown was impacted by the spill, and whose life was changed forever.

The disaster in the Kalamazoo River was of the largest tar sands oil spills ever in the Midwest, and one of many pipeline accidents in Michigan. Enbridge is responsible for hundreds of oil spills in the last decade.

The National Wildlife Federation is working to stop tar sands expansion projects that will put our resources, communities, and wildlife at risk, and is also pushing for comprehensive pipeline safety reform, a process made harder by the huge gaps in oversight and accountability for the industry.

The Exxon and Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline

Download the National Wildlife Federation report: Tar Sands at our Doorstep: The Threat to the Lake Champlain Region's Waters, Wildlife and Climate

Two of the world's biggest oil companies are trying to transport toxic tar sands oil through New England. This dangerous pipeline project (dubbed the "Exxon/Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline") would put people and wildlife at risk from oil spills, polluted water, and runaway climate change impacts.

What is the Exxon/Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline Project?

The Exxon/Enbridge tar sands pipeline project seeks to reverse the flow of two existing pipelines in order to ship crude oil from Alberta's tar sands region to the Maine coast. The first pipeline, Line 9, runs from Sarnia, Ontario to Montreal. The second pipeline, called the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL), runs from Montreal through Vermont and New Hampshire all the way to Portland, Maine.

Both of those pipelines currently send oil west, but Enbridge has asked the National Energy Board in Canada to allow for a partial reversal of Line 9 so that it can pump oil eastward instead. If this reversal is approved, Big Oil will also seek to reverse the flow of the connecting pipeline, PMPL, to transport tar sands east. This project could eventually transport over 300,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil across New England.

How Could the Exxon/Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline Impact People and Wildlife?

Tar sands oil is more corrosive than conventional crude and is particularly dangerous for older pipelines like the Portland-Montreal pipeline, which was constructed in 1950. Tar sands pipelines have been plagued by catastrophic spills, and cleanup has proved difficult. This project runs near or over some of New England’s most beautiful waterways, including:

Extreme Energy Makes Extreme Weather

Tar sands has an estimated three to five times the climate pollution of conventional crude oil. Making it easier to transport this oil from source in western Canada will increase its use in the United States and foreign markets, increasing the risk to the northeast from catastrophic storms and other climate changes. New England is already feeling the effects of a changing climate—mild winters have resulted in increased tick populations that are hurting moose populations, higher water temperatures in the summer have been killing brook trout, and more air quality warnings for hot days are forcing the young, old, and sick to stay inside.

Projects like the Exxon/Enbridge tar sands pipeline would also contribute to the expansion of habitat—destroying tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada. Escalating tar sands development in Canada is destroying wildlife habitat at a breakneck pace—pushing species like woodland caribou toward extinction and prompted a failed plan to poison and shoot thousands of wolves in a perverse effort to "protect" the caribou.


Pipeline Peril: Tar Sands Expansion and the Threat to Wildlife in the Great Lakes Region—The health and future of the Great Lakes region, which provides drinking water to millions of people, is at grave risk from tar sands oil pipeline expansions. The report explains the incredibly high risk and direct threat involved for wildlife and people of the Great Lakes region if pipeline expansions continue.

Sunken Hazard: Aging Oil Pipelines Beneath the Straits of Mackinac, an Ever-Present Threat to the Great Lakes—The report warns of a pipeline hazard located at the Straits of Mackinac, where, submerged in the waters where the Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, more than 20 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas fluids are pumped every day through aging pipelines operated by Enbridge Energy—the Canadian company responsible for the worst inland oil disaster in U.S. history.

Importing Disaster: The Anatomy of Enbridge's Once and Future Oil Spill—Enbridge's track record is covered in oil spills. They are the world's biggest transporter of Canadian tar sands oil, and responsible for the biggest inland spill in American history. Learn more about Enbridge's track record, their reckless expansion plans, and unseemly marketing tactics used to defuse criticism.

After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region—After one of the worst oil spills in Midwest history, a report finds the Great Lakes and its communities remain vulnerable to pipeline disasters

Enbridge Over Troubled Water: The Enbridge GXL System's Threat to the Great Lakes—This report tells the story of Enbridge and its system of oil pipelines in the Great Lakes region.

Also Available: Report Overview and Recommendations »

Crude Behavior: TransCanada, Enbridge, and the Tar Sands Industry's Tarnished Legacy—Years of bullying, spills, and environmental destruction documented.

Staying Hooked on a Dirty Fuel: Why Dirty Canadian Tar Sands Pipelines Are a Bad Bet for the United States—Proposed pipeline brings Gulf dangers to heartland states.

Fact Sheets

Endangering North America's Shared Bird Heritage—Why more tar sands means less wildlife

Colorado Tar Sands—Here’s what you need to know about the risks tar sands pose to Colorado communities.

Maine Tar Sands—Here’s what you need to know about the risks tar sands pose to Maine communities.

New Hampshire Tar Sands—Here’s what you need to know about the risks tar sands pose to New Hampshire communities.

Tar Sands Increases Risk for Disastrous Oil Spills—Here’s what you need to know about the risks tar sands pose to your community.

ExxonMobil's Plans to Bring Tar Sands Oil Through the Northeast—Could Big Oil behind Trailbreaker mean big problems ahead?

KXL Myths vs. Facts—Debunking the biggest lies about the Keystone XL Pipeline

Proposed Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline—Final Environmental Impact Statement Backgrounder

Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline—Big Oil plans to put America's clean energy future in jeopardy.

On Shore Oil Disasters—Why tar sands pipelines are dirty and dangerous regardless of what the industry PR tactics suggest

Enbridge Oil Spill—Learn more about the oil spill impacts, the response, and the Canadian tar sands company that owned the pipeline.

Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks

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