Fact Sheet: Tar Sands

Our most important concern about the proposed WesPac project is the prospect of bomb trains full of explosive Bakken shale oil rolling through Pittsburg. But there’s another type of crude oil that would come through, derived from “tar sands”. It is a very different substance, with different dangers. Here’s an explanation of what that’s all about.

What are tar sands?

Tar sands are pretty much what they sound like – tar mixed with sand. It’s just about the dirtiest, heaviest, most difficult-to-work-with fossil fuel possible. The stuff is usually strip-mined and then after a lot of energy-intensive processing to separate out the sand, what’s left is tar sands “bitumen”. It’s at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from Bakken shale oil. This stuff is heavy and thick, more like asphalt than anything we would recognize as a fuel.

Most tar sands extraction occurs in Alberta, Canada, although there are deposits in the US and other countries, and a mine has opened recently in Utah.

What are the dangers of transporting tar sands?

Because the tar sands are so thick and heavy, they cannot flow in pipes and railcars by themselves. The oil industry uses two methods to make the tar sands mobile – sometimes they use both at once.

The first method is to add “diluents” to the tar sands. These are lighter substances that in effect dissolve the tar sands and help it flow. When tar sands bitumen is combined with diluents, it’s called “dilbit” for short.

The second method is to heat the tar sands. Any plan for heating in an oil storage or transfer project is a huge tip-off that they plan to handle tar sands. The WesPac plan includes 5 hot oil heaters (each the size of a three-car garage). WesPac has claimed that they don’t plan on handling tar sands and that none of the refineries has asked them to – but they refuse to consider the idea of adding a condition to the project prohibiting tar sands.

Health effects

Whenever the tar sands are transferred – say from railcar to storage tank – a small amount of vapor will be released, called “fugitive emissions”. Many of the diluents are VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and harmful to human health, aggravating asthma and increasing cancer rates. For example, benzene, which causes cancer, is found in high concentrations in a lot of diluent mixtures. The tar sands themselves contain ìmercaptansî, which are a special class of extra-stinky chemicals. Mercaptans are added to your cooking gas in extremely small amounts so you can detect a gas leak. At higher concentrations, they can cause serious health problems.


A tar sands spill from a pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas.

A tar sands spill from a pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas. Notice the tarball-like clumps.

This is probably the most worrisome risk of tar sands in Pittsburg. When “dilbit” is spilled, the diluents evaporate into the air, causing health problems. They leave behind the heavy, gunky tar sands bitumen, which unlike regular crude oil, sinks rather than floats in water. Tar sands spills are incredibly hard to clean up ñ a tar sands spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010 is still not cleaned up three years later. A tar sands spill in the Bay could harm fishing for many, many years.

Effects on refinery towns and Bay Area air

Whatever’s brought to Pittsburg would end up at Bay Area refineries. Tar sands contains a lot of heavy metals and sulfur, so the whole Bay Area but especially the refinery towns (Richmond, Martinez, Crockett/Rodeo, and Benicia) will see worse air pollution. The sulfur is corrosive, which can be dangerous – the explosion at the Chevron Richmond refinery in August 2012 was caused by the corrosion of pipes by high-sulfur crudes over time.

Effects on communities near extraction

Boreal Forest Along Athabasca River

Before: Beautiful boreal forest along the Athabasca River

Tar sands extraction has gotten a lot of attention from environmentalists over the last few years for several reasons. One reason is that mining tar sands is incredibly polluting to the local area and is poisoning local people – mainly “First Nations” – native tribes in Canada – who still live by hunting and fishing.

After: a toxic moonscape of open-pit strip mining

After: a toxic moonscape of open-pit strip-mining

The process of extraction is brutal and disgusting. An area of beautiful boreal forest the size of Florida is being bulldozed for strip-mining. The oil companies leave behind a destroyed landscape full of huge pits of toxic wastewater. This wastewater leaks into the rivers, poisoning the fish and other animals – and poisoning the people who live off the land. Rates of normally rare cancers are astronomical.

Climate change impacts and the Keystone XL pipeline

Another reason environmentalists have focused on tar sands is because extracting, processing, and refining it is so energy-intensive. This means it generates much higher emissions of heat-trapping gases to produce a gallon of gasoline from tar sands than from conventional oil. People often refer to the tar sands deposits as a “carbon bomb” and retired NASA scientist James Hansen has said that exploiting them would be “game over” for the climate.

You may have heard of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This would take tar sands dilbit from Alberta south across the entire United States to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The pipeline route crosses many waterways, the vital Ogallala aquifer, and many tribes’ territories. There is vigorous, organized opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from ranchers, farmers, Native Americans, and environmental groups.

The pipeline has been delayed for several years because of this opposition. In the meantime, the oil companies are trying to get the tar sands out by train. In order to prevent this scenario of “game over” for the climate, we need to stop them from getting it to market by any route. Right here and right now, that means stopping the WesPac project.

How are governments and others responding?

In the last few months, there has been a swell of concern about tar sands and opposition to bringing it into California. In early December, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research sent a letter to the City of Pittsburg specifically asking if the WesPac project might bring in tar sands, because it would conflict with California’s plans to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. Shortly after that, the Refinery Action Collaborative, a “labor-community-university partnership”, asked that the WesPac project, along with other refinery projects in the Bay Area, discuss what kinds of crude oil they would bring in.

But the most important letter came in January from Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General. She also expressed concerns about the types of crude oil that the WesPac project might handle, in particular mentioning air quality impacts to refinery towns, climate change impacts, and inadequate planning for a spill of tar sands into the Delta.

Is the stuff already coming to the Bay Area?

Unfortunately, yes. While we have had great success fighting the proposed WesPac oil terminal, we know that small amounts of tar sands are already coming to Bay Area refineries. We also know that Phillips 66 in Rodeo wants to process more tar sands. We will keep you informed on how to fight these developments.